Why This Summer Should Be Smoother For The U.S. Airlines

Summer and Fall of 2022 were operationally tough for the U.S. airlines. Many airlines faced operational cancellations and delays due to lack of staff or new but not well trained staff at airports. With most airlines predicting a very strong summer 2023 travel season, the one cloud on the horizon is if airlines can fly though it efficiently.

Thankfully, it looks like this may be possible. While 2022 might be a near term memory if your vacation was ruined or you had Christmas with your family over Zoom in January, it actually was long enough ago that things have gotten better for the industry. Here are five big things that could make this a smooth summer for the U.S. airlines:

Better Trained Staff

In 2022, the largest U.S. airlines were facing shortages of staff. This is because many senior staff were offered early-outs when no one was traveling, and demand for travel came back more quickly than anyone anticipated. So, in summer of 2022 airlines either had too few people to run all the scheduled flights, or if they had enough people many of those were new and not experienced or well trained.

Airlines spent the back half of 2022 hiring in many categories, and many people have been trained. Those new employees in 2022 are now one year vets. No airline has trimmed capacity for this summer citing lack of staff as the reason. It is reasonable to think that this summer’s capacity has the staff needed to operate it efficiently.

Controlled Capacity

Airlines have rightfully complained that the big aircraft manufactures, Boeing and Airbus, have been late with deliveries and are generally struggling to keep up with production. Airlines complain because they were planning for the new equipment to grow, or to replace older, more fuel-inefficient models. Delivery delays means less growth in some cases, or higher costs of fuel and maintenance plus perhaps some operational restrictions.

Airlines benefit from the delays, too. Fewer pilots need to be trained into the new equipment, and growth sometimes means new station start-up costs or routes that lose money for a few months in start up. Mostly, price stability in the industry is tied directly to capacity. One industry executive stated that “excess capacity is the root of all evil” for airlines. One thing is certain: the industry is flying fewer flights this summer than if all new planes were delivered on time, and than means both better price stability and cleaner operations.

Add to this the federal mandate to fly less in certain heavily constrained areas, like New York. Because of Air Traffic staffing issues, the FAA has asked airlines to cut about 10% of the flights from New York airports, and American, United, and JetBlue have all made these announcements. When you trim the flying from the most congested airspace, operations nationally benefit.

More International Focus

Airlines are banking on a major return to International flights. According to the Official Airline Guide (OAG), the summer of 2023 will see an all-time high of international flights. Interestingly, this is true while there are fewer transatlantic competitors, down 18% from 45 to 37 compared to the year 2000. U.S. airlines have built up their dominant hubs significantly, as even with more total flights there are fewer nonstop airport pairs, even compared with 2019. London Heathrow to New York has 14% more nonstop flights, anchoring this core market return.

With a bigger than ever International network at the big three U.S. airlines, this means the days of seeing a wide body aircraft on a transcontinental route or from New York to Florida are largely gone. This means a little less competition for domestic airspace, too, with more of the big fleets flying out of the country. Without these planes fighting for arrival and departure clearances, the domestic U.S. system should be more on-time and generally more reliable.

No One Wants To Be This Year’s Southwest

No need to say more about the Southwest disaster last December, except to say that no airline could have weathered this better. Decades of reliable service and general ‘friend of the customer’ culture paid back in that while people were upset, they also saw this as an anomaly that would get fixed. On Southwest’s side, they never hid from the realities and were transparent about what they were doing to fix it. This situation and its response will likely be used in business schools as an example of how companies can successfully deal with a bad event.

Most airlines do not have the decades of goodwill that Southwest did, and so this same scale event at another U.S. airline could be more consequential, and may invite more regulation and litigation. No airline leader wants this, so just the focus on not letting this happen means that issues will be nipped in the bud quickly. It may mean more cancellations early during bad weather or another issue, but likely no days or weeks of massive outages. When the infrastructure of flights scheduled and trained people are in place, adding this diligence and attention of the day to day will keep the industry in line for the summer.

The Government Might Help

This is an aspirational sub-head, I realize. But we have an administration that has been quick to blame the airlines when things go wrong. Yet this same FAA has asked airlines to fly less this summer because of staffing problems in air traffic control (ATC). As the airlines have stepped up their own plans, it is possible that the government realizes that they are part of a smooth running system. They can get ATC staffed and improve their own services, else be taken to task for blaming airlines about things they really cannot control.

There will be delays and flight cancellations this summer, as is normal in any system with machines, people, and mother nature. But system-wide outages and outraged stories of operational meltdown are not likely. Some of this is because of proactive airline management, like getting people hired and paying more attention day to day. Some is from realities of capacity limitations and favorable International opportunities. But fixing any major operation requires good planning, investment, and a little bit of luck. The U.S. airlines seem primed for all three in summer 2023.

Article source: https://airlines.einnews.com/article/641093278/1TE5ZbGZXmac7Xmj?ref=rss&ecode=vaZAu9rk30b8KC5H

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