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What's behind the bottlenecks in air travel? Airlines have been caught flat-footed by a travel surge

 Planes are lined up on the tarmac awaiting takeoff. Thousands of flights were canceled in October due to staff shortages, and disruptions could continue through the holiday season.
Tampa International Airport
Planes are lined up on the tarmac awaiting takeoff.

Air travel is roaring back after the pandemic caused it to crash in 2020. AAA says more than 4 million Americans will fly over Thanksgiving, almost matching 2019 numbers. But airlines have struggled to adjust.

American and Southwest canceled thousands of flights in October due to staff shortages. Disruptions could continue through the holiday season.

WUSF's Bradley George wanted to learn more about the bottlenecks in the airline industry, so he talked to Bijan Vasigh, an economist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Individually, we've seen examples of all these different problems over the course of the pandemic. What's happening now where it just seems like it's all coming together, where we're having flight cancellations and issues with passengers and issues with pilots and the like?

The pandemic decimated travel a year ago. But fortunately, we saw that the government injected massive amounts of money into the airline industry. Airlines were also able to persuade tens of thousands of their employees to take voluntary buyouts, early retirement. Therefore, when we see the market is getting back to normal, bringing back those employees becomes a major task.

So, it seems like as you’re saying airlines tried to adjust their staffs and maybe lay off people or furlough people, because we saw this decline in pandemic travel. But we've seen travel returned to pre-pandemic levels, maybe faster than the airlines were anticipating.

That's absolutely correct. Please remember that it’s easy for airlines to get employees to take voluntary buyouts, and so forth. But hiring them is much more difficult. Many of them, they have been absorbed into other businesses. Some of them, for example, pilots and so forth, are regulated. If a pilot is not flying for six months, he cannot come back and fly for the airline again.

How do you see these trends and these problems playing out as we enter the holiday season and go through that, and we go into next year?

I believe the market will adjust itself. Airlines recognize that they have a shortage of labor, they are offering bonuses for flight attendants to fly on Sunday and Saturday. Therefore, airlines would be able to persuade more people to enter the industry.

Bradley George was a Morning Edition host and reporter at WUSF until March 2022.
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