July was the second busiest month in DFW International Airport’s history as 6.9 million passengers traveled through the airport during the peak summer holiday season.
Passengers destined for cruises, family reunions, business trips and post-pandemic getaways took up nearly 90% of all available seats on inbound and outbound flights at DFW during the month.
Perhaps the crowds would have been larger if the return of travel hadn’t come to an abrupt halt this summer, when airlines were cutting back to deal with an extreme pilot shortage along with high delay and cancellation rates, partly caused by that pilot shortage.
“Everything is sold out. that’s the main issue,” said Yolanda Meador, an Irving-based travel agent and owner of You Deserve It! Holidays. “And now we’re getting into the fall when things are supposed to lighten up and it’s not slowing down.”
Shortages in the airline industry are causing subtle and visible changes to the US travel system. Major airlines like Fort Worth-based American Airlines rely less on regional partners, cancellations are on the rise, and so are delays.
Here are five charts that show how much travel has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic:
Fewer pilots means fewer flights
A pilot shortage that has loomed over the travel industry for nearly two decades is now the main constraint on airlines, forcing carriers to cut back on recovery plans even as demand for flights increases. At a conference of regional airline executives this month in Washington, DC, industry leaders said there is a need for about 14,000 new pilots each year, while only about 6,000 are being added.
“We expect to see a shortfall of 28,000 pilots over the next decade,” said Chris Brown, vice president of government affairs for the National Air Carriers Association. “We need dialogue for solutions.”
Airlines have responded by reducing flights this year. They also said it could take years to get the problem under control.
This summer, airlines operated about 13% fewer flights than in the summer of 2019, according to the flight schedule service Cirium. The trend also applies to the fall and winter months.
This means around 100,000 fewer flights each month in the airline industry.
This also means that there are fewer routes to fewer destinations, particularly to smaller cities. American Airlines has completely reduced flights to cities such as Dubuque, Iowa. Toledo, Ohio? and Islip and Ithaca in New York.
It changes who travels on our planes
In 2019, 54% of all flights sold by American, Delta or United were operated by one of their smaller regional airline partners with names like American Eagle, Endeavor and United Express. Some companies that operate these flights, such as Compass, SkyWest and Republic, are independent and fly for larger carriers. Others, such as Envoy and Horizon, are owned by larger airlines.
Now, passengers are far less likely to fly a regional jet because pilots who used to work for those airlines are leaving for more money at American, United, Delta or Southwest. The majority of American Airlines flights were with regional carriers between October 2015 and the end of 2021, according to Cirium data. But less than half were on regional carriers in 2022.
“Depending on the relationship between the regional carrier and the major airline — American Airlines has a few of its own — they can take the same, highly skilled pilots and bring them back to fly larger aircraft with more passengers and lower costs,” he said. Mike. Arnot, representative of Cirium. “It’s a better use of a scarce resource.”
About 1,000 American Airlines pilots retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many who were bought out to leave early. These cuts made recovery in travel more difficult as the need to hire new pilots grew.
“Covid hit during a time when 30 years ago we were doing some of the biggest hiring we’ve ever done in our history as an airline industry,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said at American’s conference Travel Association on September 20. “So what that means as pilots, I can’t fly past 65, and they all retire at the exact same time.”
American said it plans to hire up to 4,000 pilots by the end of 2023.
Airplanes are also different
Riding a regional airline also means flying those small 50- to 76-seat jets made by Embraer or Bombardier. These planes typically had a four-seat wide cabin and primarily transported passengers from smaller cities to major hubs.
“We do have a hundred aircraft on the ground because of the pilot shortage, and it continues to be a real challenge,” American Airlines vice president of global government affairs Steven Neumann said during the Regional Airline Association conference.
It’s not all bad news. Regional jets are smaller and have fewer amenities and premium seats than the larger jets made by Boeing and Airbus.
It can also be more economical for airlines. While this has meant parking some planes, carriers are “upgrading” some flights to use larger, even wide-body, planes for flights that used to be operated with smaller aircraft.
“Flying an aircraft is expensive, especially because of fuel and pilots, and that cost is calculated against the number of seats they fly,” Arnot said. “Regional jets have fewer seats – 76 or fewer – and so it’s simple math that they have a higher cost per flight.
Low supply meets high demand
Airfare has fallen to historic lows in 2020 due to COVID-19. And while consumers have enjoyed low fares for nearly two years, prices surpassed pre-pandemic levels in April.
Through May, average airfares were 22% higher than they were in the same month of 2019, according to the Consumer Price Index.
While the price gap narrowed as the summer peak subsided, travel agents say tickets are still expensive into the fall.
Austin-based travel agent Keith Waldon said it’s hard to find seats on planes, even for those looking to upgrade to business or first class.
“The front of the plane sells at full price and there aren’t many opportunities to upgrade,” said Waldon, founder of travel agency Departure Lounge. “Many of our customers who have stored points are unable to use them.”
The high prices have helped offset higher costs by airlines for fuel and labor. American posted its first profit without government aid since 2019 in the second quarter of this year. US airlines posted a profit of $2.2 billion in the second quarter, after losing $5.1 billion in the same period a year earlier.
Flights were less reliable in 2022
As airlines increased flights in 2021 and 2022 to return to pre-pandemic levels and meet high demand from travelers, carriers faced increased delays and cancellations.
Almost 25% of planes have landed more than 15 minutes late so far this year through July, according to government figures. This is the lowest on-time arrival rate since 2014.
And nearly 3% of flights have been canceled, the highest rate in at least a decade except for 2020, when thousands of flights were canceled when the pandemic blindsided airlines.
“Our on-time performance is not exactly behind our historical averages, but very respectable, and our mission is to get everyone where they want to go that day and not cancel their flight,” said the president of Southwest Airlines. , Gary Kelly at the US Chamber. Commerce Global Aerospace Summit on August 16. “So we’ll run a little later. … We have a long way to go, and our company’s No. 1 priority is to return to that operational excellence.”