- Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Across the country, Americans are eagerly purchasing tickets, packing their bags and returning to the skies. Every day, more than two million passengers are taking off to see loved ones, attend business conferences, or take a vacation.

It is quite remarkable that the airline industry rebounded from 1950s passenger levels to nearly 2019 levels in a matter of months. Many had predicted it would be 2024 before we saw any kind of recovery. This was possible because the Payroll Support Program (PSP) kept thousands of employees mechanics, gate agents, customer service agents, flight attendants, pilots and others on the job throughout the pandemic. As stipulated by law, all PSP dollars went straight to the paychecks of our employees, ensuring they kept their benefits and remained trained, licensed and ready to go. It is not surprising that this bipartisan program has been widely accepted as the most successful part of the CARES Act.

The fact is that without PSP, we very well might not be flying at all. And without PSP, commercial aviation in the United States would look like most of Europe which is struggling to recover. Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol or other European airports provide proof that aviation in the U.S. is in a much better place.

Admittedly, the industry’s recovery has come with growing pains. The pandemic has made a lasting impact on industries across the economy, our nation’s workforce and the public. U.S. airlines have worked diligently every day to adapt to these new realities, improve operations and listen to passengers and these efforts are working.

Industries across the economy have quickly realized pre-pandemic staffing models do not work in a post-pandemic world. Airlines and other industries continue to see higher levels of employee absenteeism due to Covid-19, and fewer employees are willing to work overtime. We made and continue to make adjustments to accommodate and reflect our “new normal.”

First, carriers are proactively reducing their schedules to improve operational reliability. Our industry is unique, as schedules are set months in advance, and airlines are constantly evaluating to optimize safety, performance and smooth operations. This summer, airlines cut capacity by 16%. Flight schedules for September and October are already down by 15% compared to pre-pandemic levels, and carriers are reducing September flights by an additional 5%.

Second, A4A carriers initiated aggressive hiring campaigns to hire for well-paying, quality jobs across the industry and these efforts have been highly successful. The latest Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) data shows that U.S. airline employment has reached an all-time high. And, in June, A4A passenger carriers were staffed with 10% more pilots per block hour compared to pre-pandemic. We understand that these employees are the backbone of our industry, which is why airlines invest so deeply in our workforce. From 2010-2019, the average compensation per airline employee rose by approximately 48%, and in 2020, U.S. passenger airline employees earned wages 20% higher than the average private sector employee. Carriers also recognize the importance of securing a pipeline of employees for the years ahead, and they are strengthening partnerships with higher education institutions across the country, helping to shore up the pilot pipeline and recruit more diverse candidates.

Third, airlines are listening to our customers. We have made significant adjustments to their travel policies throughout the pandemic to offer increased flexibility to consumers. For example, A4A passenger airlines have eliminated all change fees for domestic flights, and many have adjusted the expiration dates for travel credits. They have also made significant investments in their mobile apps to improve communication with passengers, providing flight, baggage and other updates in real time. Additionally, airlines have been working with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to clarify existing practices and increase transparency for travelers.

We understand that when passengers purchase a ticket, they expect to get to their destination safely and on time. Decisions to delay or cancel a flight are not made lightly. Some factors are within carrier control, but others are not—including weather, air traffic control (ATC) staffing, National Air Space (NAS) volume even alligators on the runway. In fact, in the first six months of 2022, 61% of the cancelations were caused by weather and the NAS collectively, as our nation experienced unprecedented weather events and an increase in commercial space launches, meaning our skies are busier—and more crowded—than ever.

While carriers understand that changes to flight plans can cause inconveniences for our customers, the bottom line is that safety is—and always will be—our highest priority. Air travel is the safest mode of transportation in the world, and we want to keep it that way. Weather and NAS conditions are dynamic, which is why pilots, flight dispatchers and air traffic controllers all work together to constantly monitor and update operations based on a range of conditions along the planned route of flight.

The adjustment to our new reality has faced some headwinds, but airlines remain committed to adapting to better serve our customers. The changes we are making are working. Labor Day saw significantly less cancellations than previous holiday weekends this year, even with more passengers flying than 2019 levels. We’re encouraged by both the public’s enthusiasm for flying and how our changes are improving service. This is a testament to the hard work of our record 767,000 airline employees. We remain committed to them, to safety, and to you, our customers. We want travelers to have a safe, seamless, and positive travel experience and we won’t stop working toward that goal every day.

• Rebecca Spicer is Senior Vice President of Communications at Airlines for America (A4A), which promotes safety, security and a healthy U.S. airline industry. A4A works collaboratively with airlines, labor, Congress, the Administration and other groups to improve aviation for the traveling and shipping public.

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