A Better Flight Plan

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Here Are the Steps the Airline Industry is Taking to Create a Better Air Travel Experience for Everyone

By Nicholas E. Calio, A4A President and CEO
The following commentary was originally published in Fortune.

During the pandemic, air travel came to a screeching halt, plummeting to levels not seen since the dawn of the jet age. Airplanes were parked wing to wing in the desert. Airports were left empty, like forgotten ghost towns, not resembling hubs of transportation and commerce. There was widespread fear that this sector of the U.S. economy could collapse. These were dire times for the airline industry.

Today, airline travel is booming. Every day, 2 million people pack their bags, clear security, and board airplanes in the U.S. Americans are taking family vacations, attending weddings, and heading to long-postponed reunions with their loved ones.

Nobody could have anticipated that the U.S. airline industry would see passenger volumes skyrocket from 1950s levels to close to 2019 levels in a matter of months. This recovery has been much faster than economists, analysts, and industry observers had predicted.

Relaunching an entire industry in such a short period of time is an unprecedented feat–and it would not have been possible without the Payroll Support Program (PSP). PSP was a lifeline for the industry at a time when U.S. airlines were collectively burning $10-12 billion each month, with no end in sight. 

The program ensured U.S. airlines were able to stay in business and avoid bankruptcy. Carriers were able to keep hundreds of thousands of employees on the job, trained, licensed, and ready to go. Democrats and Republicans–in the House and Senate–supported PSP, as did labor leaders representing flight attendants, pilots, and mechanics. The PSP funds went only to the paychecks of employees, as stipulated by law, and carriers have paid back the government loans. Without PSP, we may not have an airline industry in this country at all. Today, U.S. airlines are flying and people are traveling thanks to PSP.

The sudden resurgence has come with challenges. Like other industries, airlines are navigating a dramatically changed workforce and learning that pre-pandemic staffing models simply no longer work. There are more employee absences due to COVID-19 and fewer employees are able to work overtime. Therefore, airlines need more on-call reserve employees. 

Airlines are hiring at a rapid pace. They are investing in flight academies and have launched employment campaigns. Last week, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics announced that U.S. airline employment has reached an all-time high. As of June 2022, A4A passenger carriers were staffed with 10% more pilots per 1,000 block hours than they were in June 2019. 

For their part, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has launched a hiring campaign to help ensure an adequate number of air traffic controllers are trained and in towers. However, it’s not a simple process. “As we face controller staffing challenges in the FAA, it’s not as simple as moving fully certified professional controllers from one facility to another,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President and CEO Rich Santa recently said. “Controllers who are fully certified in one facility must still train on the maps, frequencies, airspace, procedures, and traffic at their new facility and there is no guarantee of how long it will take or that they will be successful.” 

Airlines constantly collaborate with the FAA to address shared operational challenges, including inclement weather, so schedules can be adjusted, and carriers can communicate with travelers.

Our airlines understand the importance of communicating with customers, which is why they have expedited significant investments in upgrades to technologies, including mobile apps. And travelers are increasingly relying on technology for check-in, operational updates, baggage tracking, and automatic rebooking.

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently said that airlines need to operate “realistic” schedules, and that is exactly what we are doing. Carriers are constantly evaluating their operations. Last spring, U.S. airlines proactively adjusted their schedules and reduced summer capacity by 16% to accommodate staffing realities. 

Airlines have also adjusted travel policies to increase flexibility such as eliminating change fees or waiving expiration dates on travel credits. U.S. carriers have issued $21 billion in cash refunds since the onset of the pandemic, and refund complaints to the Department of Transportation (DOT) have been steadily declining. 

While we recognize that it will take time to establish a new normal, U.S. airlines are committed to restoring service, improving operations, and adjusting our business models to better serve the traveling public.

Airlines always strive to provide the highest levels of customer service from ticket purchase to touchdown. Simply put, we want travelers to have a safe, seamless, and positive travel experience–and we won’t stop working toward that goal every day.

Nicholas E. Calio is the president and CEO of Airlines for America (A4A).

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