The airline industry has been slow to replace jobs lost at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and staffing issues have caused headaches for air travellers.
The airline industry shed jobs at the start of 2020 as stay-at-home orders and Covid fears dampened air travel. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows the industry – which includes full-time and part-time employees of passenger and cargo airlines – cut 1 in 10 jobs from February to October 2020.
While airlines have filled most of the lost jobs, there is still a large shortage of pilots. Federal Aviation Administration data shows there were 17% fewer active commercial pilot certificates – the type of certificate required to fly an airliner – in 2021 compared to 2009.
Airlines have blamed staffing problems and bad weather for the wave of flight delays, cancellations and higher prices that have plagued air travelers in recent months. JetBlue cited staff shortages when it cut its summer flight schedule earlier this month. Analysts expect staffing issues to contribute to higher airfares throughout the summer.
Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at airfare watchdog Scott’s Cheap Flights, said the lack of employees and pilots has led to a supply chain problem similar to those faced by industries in the oil, autos and consumer electronics, where companies that cut jobs at the start of the pandemic found themselves short of staff as demand returned.
“You can’t take a driver off the street,” Orlando said. “Pilots need a lot of training. When they allowed pilots to leave in 2020, the chain of pilots broke. It’s super important. It’s not enough that they don’t have enough pilots now; they don’t have enough pilots in the pipeline.
Flight crews can only work a set number of hours, Orlando said, so a storm that keeps a flight on the runway in one city can trigger a series of cascading delays and cancellations in other cities. if replacement crews are not available.
“There is no room for error,” Orlando said.