Summer flight cuts: Some staff-challenged airlines are dialing back schedules to avert cancellations

Travelers visiting South Florida had every right to be cranky this spring break season as airlines cancelled or delayed hundreds of flights over the weekends, citing staff shortages, bad weather and air traffic control issues.

Now, some air carriers serving the tri-county area are cutting back on flights so their depleted staffs can handle what the industry expects to be a continued surge in consumer demand for air travel. The goal, it seems, is fewer cancellations and better customer relations.

JetBlue Airways, one of the busiest carriers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, says it is trimming back flights by 8% to 10% for May and by similar reductions for the remainder of the summer.

RELATED: After $3.6 billion offer, Spirit Airlines agrees to negotiate with JetBlue ]

“Despite hiring nearly 3,000 new crewmembers this year, like many businesses, we remain staffing constrained,” the company said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Tight staffing makes it more difficult for us to recover when air travel is disrupted by bad weather and air traffic control delays. By reducing our flight schedule for the summer and continuing to hire new crewmembers, we hope to have more breathing room in the system to help ease some of the recent delays and cancellations that we’ve seen in the industry.”

Ultra-discounter Spirit Airlines, which is based in South Florida, said the company is “evaluating” its summer schedules in the face of challenges, but has yet to announce any plans, according to spokesman Erik Hofmeyer.

Spirit Airlines, which is entertaining buyout offers from Frontier Airlines and JetBlue Airways, is evaluating its summer scheduling so it can be better positioned to handle disruptions caused by bad weather and uneven staffing. JetBlue has already announced summer flight cuts of between 8% and 10% according to reports. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)

Smaller carriers such as Alaska Airlines, Allegiant and Sun Country have said they intend to slightly scale back their schedules, according to industry analysts.

From last fall and into the spring of this year, most of the airlines have struggled to fly their customers to their destinations on time — and in many instances to get them there at all — as problems ranging from foul weather and air traffic control issues to technical glitches stopped many flight operations cold. The setbacks severely tested shorthanded staffs that were unable to rebook passengers because of crew shortages and/or unavailable alternate flights.

Bigger airlines such as American and Delta seem to have weathered the cancellation storm better because of their sheer size and amount of resources. In fact, one of the reasons that Spirit is cited by observers and executives as a takeover target of Frontier and JetBlue is that the latter two are hungry for planes and experienced workers.

RELATED: JetBlue and Frontier are fighting to buy Spirit Airlines. What does that mean for South Florida?  ]

American Airlines, which serves all three South Florida airports with a major U.S. and international hub at Miami International Airport, said it altered its summer schedules two months ago, but did not say if flight cutbacks were part of the measures.

“In February, we adjusted our summer schedule to provide customers certainty when planning their summer vacations and we shifted our wide body long-haul international flying to destinations where customers want to go,” said spokeswoman Laura Masvidal in a statement.

Delta Air lines, another major carrier serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach, says it has refrained from cutting flights.

For 2021, Delta was the top-ranked carrier among major airlines in metrics kept by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s air travel consumer report, which found it had 0.58% of its total domestic flights canceled and 1.29 consumer complaints per 100,000 passengers boarded during the year.

“Succinctly, we have not made any schedule adjustments based on staffing as some of our competitors reportedly have this week,” said spokesperson Morgan Durrant in an email.

The airline said Wednesday it is seeing unprecedented demand for summer travel and even expects a second quarter profit after suffering huge quarterly losses during the pandemic.

But the company, which is in contract negotiations with its 13,500 unionized pilots, is in a public relations battle with the airline’s contingent of the Air Line Pilots Association over staffing and flight schedules.

Union members are conducting informational picketing to get their message out to the public at selected airports, saying they are over-taxed by quick turnarounds between trip assignments.

RELATED: Airlines cancel flights due to COVID staffing shortages  ]

“We’re tired and frustrated because we’ve been working a record amount of overtime just to maintain that schedule,” Delta pilots leader Evan Baach said in a telephone interview. “We have shorter nights in between duty periods, and we’re working on our off days.”

He asserted the airline is trying to staff “too many flights with too few pilots,” an allegation management disputes.

“We continuously evaluate our staffing models and plan ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise, and the resilience of the Delta people is unmatched in that regard,” Durrant said. “Pilot schedules remain in line with all requirements set by the FAA as well as those outlined in our pilot contract.”

JetBlue Airways. citing insufficient staff, is cutting its flight schedules by 8% to 10% in May and is likely to make similar reductions for the remainder of the summer to give it room to handle disruptions caused by weather and air traffic control issues. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File) (Seth Wenig)

Industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research in San Francisco said schedule reductions the airlines are contemplating now are a good thing for fliers who will be in the air later.

“The good news is JetBlue is making a very bold and undoubtedly a very expensive move to cut back its flying by a meaningful amount,” Harteveldt said. “They are doing so ahead of the summer and it’s better to do that now.”

Part of the problem is a reduction in staffing during the pandemic, which forced the industry to cut flying by 85% to 90% industrywide when COVID was delivering its severest impact. Despite the rebound in business, the companies have yet to completely restore their labor forces.

He added that some airline employees who did not lose their jobs to furloughs “left anyway because they found other jobs.”

A third element is the sheer competition the airlines are waging against other industries for workers. “Job seekers have their pick of any kind of job at any kind of company,” he said. “Usually, there are more people chasing jobs at airlines than there are jobs available.”

He said carriers are acting in the face of “an enormous amount of demand out there for travel” as well as a desire by the companies to recoup the money they lost during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which all but grounded the nation’s airlines.

“I don’t know that we’re done seeing potential changes to airline schedules,” he said. “The airlines are looking at all of their key employee groups including pilots, flight attendants, airport workers and reservations and customer service employees,” he said.

The objective: Make sure they have enough people on duty to cover various disruptions “before they get into the thick of summer.”

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