Airlines face big rebooking challenges this summer

Airline passengers, some not wearing face masks after Covid-19 public transport rules ended, sit on an American Airlines flight operated by SkyWest Airlines from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in California in Denver, Colorado on April 19, 2022.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Airlines that once touted global destinations, adventure, luxury or both, now rely on a simpler selling point: reliability.

Flight delays and cancellations increased several times over the past year, costing US carriers over $100 million combined and disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of customers. Even some crews were forced to sleep in airportsa rare last resort for an industry used to seeing thousands of pilots and flight attendants on the road every day.

As the peak travel season begins, the industry risks a repeat of these headaches, and airlines are hoping to get ahead of the problems. Their efforts include massive hiringbetter technology for staff and customers, earlier planning for storms and, for some carriers, conservative planning or cuts to their spring and summer schedules absolutely.

One of the biggest challenges for airlines in what is shaping up to be a monster travel season is how to deal with routine disruptions like bad weather, whether it’s delaying flights or canceling flights. purely and simply before passengers arrive at the airport. When planes are packed, airlines have fewer options to move passengers to alternative flights, staging a game of musical chairs in the sky⁠ – complete with luggage.

Airlines do not charge passengers to rebook and major network carriers discarded standard economy class date change fee to boost bookings during the coronavirus pandemic. But travelers could pay the price if they are forced to buy a new last-minute ticket on another airline to get to big events like a wedding or keep other travel plans going.

Preventing cancellations is important.

“If we are reliable, the seat is much more comfortable, the food tastes much better, the service we provide is much more accommodating”, American airlines CEO Robert Isom told employees at a town hall on April 12. “People really need to feel in control of their routes.”

Over the past three years, American has developed its Hub Efficiency Analytics Tool, launched last month. Dubbed HEAT, the tool helps the airline delay more flights before bad weather storms and avoid canceling them later, according to the town hall. It analyzes data such as crew availability and passenger connections, among other data points.

“The goal is to prevent cancellations in the first place so that we don’t have to relocate people given the high loads we expect this summer,” said Maya Leibman, chief information officer of American, during an earnings call earlier in April.

carriers, including Spirit Airlines and Jet Blue Airways to have already reduced spring and summer flights. JetBlue, for example, has cut its plan to expand flights by up to 15% this year from 2019 levels and now plans a schedule of no more than 5% from three years ago as it tries to stabilize its operations while dealing with personnel shortages, including pilot attrition.

According to Deutsche Bank analyst Michael Linenberg, schedule reductions for June are greater at low-cost and ultra-low-cost airlines than at network carriers due to staff shortages and high travel costs. fuel.

These carriers “are likely to be disproportionately affected by this effect given that low-cost traffic represents a larger share of their revenue base than for major carriers,” he wrote in a memo. April 11.

Staffing Solutions

American plans to fly up to 94% of its 2019 schedule in the second quarter, while United Airlines expects to steal 87% and Delta Airlines plans to fly 84% from three years ago. The growth potential of major airlines is limited by a shortage of pilots, especially among the smaller regional airlines that feed their hubs.

American said it has hired 12,000 people since last summer and expects to hire some 20,000 people in total this year. United has hired 6,000 people this year and Delta has hired 15,000 since the start of 2021, in part to replace the more than 17,000 workers who accepted buyout offers from the airline at the height of the pandemic.

The $54 billion in taxpayer assistance airlines received to pay staff during the pandemic prohibited layoffs, but buyouts were allowed.

American, Delta and United all say they are well-staffed to handle the surge in demand.

“We’ve made so much progress with customers during the pandemic and really built the United brand,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during the Chicago carrier’s quarterly call in April. “We are not willing to sacrifice this customer goodwill for the possibility of short-term benefits.”

United has spent years building tools to help passengers book on their own and avoid long lines at airports — technology that saves time and labor costs. In 2019, it launched ConnectionSaver, which can help hold a plane for connecting passengers, as well as On-Demand Agent, a video chat platform for customer service.

Delicate delays

Airlines also have to deal with frequent disruptions due to bad weather, such as those felt at busy Florida airports in April.

The thunderstorms have triggered cascades of thousands of cancellations and delays over the past year, disruptions made worse by airlines which have scheduled too many flights relative to their staff.

The Federal Aviation Administration is calling airlines to a two-day meeting in Florida earlier this month to discuss congested airspace over the state, one of the hotspots for tourism during the pandemic, CNBC reported. Flight capacity at some of the state’s busiest airports has already exceeded that of 2019, along with space launches and the resumption of general aviation, the FAA said.

Last week, some executives, notably at JetBlue and Border airlines put some of the blame on understaffing at a key air traffic control center in Florida.

The Government Accountability Office is reviewing recent airline disruptions, a spokesperson told CNBC.

Thunderstorms are particularly tricky for airlines because they are less predictable than larger systems like hurricanes or winter storms, which allow airlines to cancel flights sometimes days in advance so that crews are in able to restart the operation.

Cutting flights as soon as possible “will probably make things smoother for the passenger, but things happen. It’s summer,” said Adam Thompson, founder of consultancy Lagniappe Aviation, and who works in the industry for more than two decades. “Weather is unpredictable. Every time someone says, ‘This is the worst summer I’ve had,’ I say, ‘Give it a year.'”

Furious passengers, accustomed to the conveniences of modern life, where groceries, clothes and rideshares arrive quickly at their doorstep, wait for hours for help from customer service and only grow more frustrated.

“We used to say, ‘Hey, Amazon will bring my package tomorrow. Why can’t you be there in no time?’ said Savanthi Syth, airline analyst at Raymond James. “[Airlines] We have to step up and meet those expectations.”

How passengers can cope

Extra preparation can help avoid headaches this season.

Here are a few tips:

1. Book flights that depart early in the day.

This will give you a better chance of getting a new booking and avoiding the impact of a delay when things go wrong. “Being an airline guy forever, I always tell people when they travel, don’t book the last flight of the night. You need something like a cushion,” Thompson said.

2. Check the weather beyond where you are.

Airlines operate complex networks and the weather at your departure point is not necessarily the weather at your destination. Many airline apps will show you where your plane is coming from upon arrival. Also check the weather at this airport.

3. Choose a busier day if you have flexibility.

Thompson said to look at an airline’s schedule to find out how many flights the carrier is operating to their destination that day. Airlines generally fly less on Saturdays. This could mean less wiggle room if you face disruptions. Thursdays and Fridays traditionally have longer hours, but airports are often busier, he added.

4. Know what is due to you.

You are right to a refund if the airline cancels or significantly delays your flight, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Airlines can offer you a voucher for future travel, but passengers can demand a refund if they prefer.

Keep in mind that budget airlines like South West do not have interline agreements with other carriers that allow them to book travelers on a competitor. Although airlines use these agreements sparingly, if a carrier does not have one, it could reduce your chances of getting an alternative flight.

5. Be nice.

Gate agents and reservation agents, many of whom are new hires, are also under stress. Staying calm is more effective all around. Simply put, Thompson said, don’t be a fool.

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