The pilot shortage is changing the way we travel and here are 5 charts that show it

July was the second busiest month in DFW International Airport’s history as 6.9 million passengers traveled through the airport during the peak summer holiday season.

Those passengers destined for cruises, family reunions, business trips and post-pandemic getaways took up nearly 90% of all available seats on inbound and outbound flights at DFW during the month.

Perhaps the crowds would have been larger if the return to travel hadn’t suddenly stalled this summer, when airlines scaled back to cope with a crippling pilot shortage along with high delay and cancellation rates, caused in part by lack of pilots.

“Everything is sold; that’s the bottom line,” said Yolanda Meador, an Irving-based travel agent and owner of You Deserve It! The holidays. “And now we’re heading into the fall when things are supposed to ease up and it’s not slowing down.”

Shortages in the airline industry are causing subtle and visible changes in the US travel system. Major airlines like Fort Worth-based American Airlines are relying less on regional partners, cancellations are up and so are delays.

Here are five charts that show how much travel has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic:

Fewer pilots means fewer flights

A nearly two-decade-long shortage of pilots in the travel industry is now the main constraint on airlines, forcing carriers to cut recovery plans even as demand for flights is booming. At a conference of regional airline executives this month in Washington, DC, industry leaders said there is a need for about 14,000 new pilots each year, while only about 6,000 are being added.

“We expect to see a shortage of 28,000 pilots over the next decade,” said Chris Brown, vice president of government affairs for the National Air Carriers Association. “We need a dialogue about solutions.”

Airlines have responded by cutting flights this year. They also said it could take years to get the problem under control.

During this summer, airlines operated about 13% fewer flights than in the summer of 2019, according to flight schedule service Cirium. The trend is continuing in the autumn and winter months.

That means about 100,000 fewer flights each month in the airline industry.

This also means there are fewer routes to fewer destinations, especially in small towns. American Airlines has completely cut flights to cities such as Dubuque, Iowa; Toledo, Ohio; and Islip and Ithaca in New York.

Who travels on our planes is changing

In 2019, 54% of all flights sold by American, Delta or United were operated by one of their smaller regional airline partners with names like American Eagle, Endeavor and United Express. Some companies that operate these flights, such as Compass, SkyWest and Republic, are independent and fly for larger carriers. Others, such as Envoy and Horizon, are owned by larger airlines.

Now, passengers are far less likely to fly on a regional airline because pilots who used to work for those airlines are leaving for more money at American, United, Delta or Southwest. According to Cirium data, most American Airlines flights were on regional carriers between October 2015 and the end of 2021. But less than half were on regional carriers in 2022.

“Depending on the relationship between the regional carrier and the major airline — American Airlines owns some of them — they can take the same highly skilled pilots and bring them back to fly larger planes with more passengers and costs lower,” Mike said. Arnot, a spokesman for Cirium. “It’s a better use of a scarce resource.”

About 1,000 American Airlines pilots retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many who bought out early. These cuts only made it more difficult for travel to recover as the need to hire new pilots increased.

“Covid struck during a period in which 30 years ago we were making some of the biggest hires we’ve ever made in our history as an airline industry,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said at the US Travel Association Conference on September 20. “So what that means as pilots, I can’t fly past the age of 65 and they all retire at the same time.”

American said it plans to hire up to 4,000 pilots by the end of 2023.

Even the planes are different

Getting on a regional airline also means flying on those small 50- to 76-seat planes made by Embraer or Bombardier. Those planes usually had a four-seat-wide cabin and mostly shuttled passengers from smaller cities to major hubs.

“We have a hundred planes on the ground because of the pilot shortage, and that continues to be a real challenge,” American Airlines vice president of global government affairs Stephen Neuman said during the Regional Airline Association conference.

It’s not all bad news. Regional airline planes are smaller and have less equipment and premium seats than larger planes made by Boeing and Airbus.

It can also be more economical for airlines. While this has meant parking some planes, carriers have “upgraded” some flights to use larger, even wide-body, planes for flights that were once operated by smaller planes.

“Flying an airplane is expensive, especially because of fuel and pilots, and these costs are measured by the number of seats flown,” Arnot said. “Regional jets have fewer seats — 76 or fewer — and so it’s just math that they have higher costs per seat flown.”

Low supply meets high demand

Airfare fell to historic lows in 2020 due to COVID-19. And while consumers enjoyed nearly two years of low airfares, prices surpassed pre-pandemic levels in April.

Through May, the average airline ticket was 22% higher than in the same month of 2019, according to the consumer price index.

While the price gap narrowed as the summer peak subsided, travel agents say tickets are still expensive for autumn.

Austin-based travel agent Keith Waldon said it’s hard to find seats on planes, even for those wanting to upgrade to business or first class.

“The front of the plane is being sold at full price and there’s not much room for improvement,” said Waldon, founder of travel agency Departure Lounge. “Many of our customers who have stored points cannot use them.”

Higher fares have helped offset higher costs by airlines for fuel and labor. American made its first profit without government assistance since 2019 during the second quarter of this year. US airlines posted a $2.2 billion profit during the second quarter, after losing $5.1 billion during the same period a year earlier.

Flights have been less reliable in 2022

As airlines increased flights in 2021 and 2022 to return to pre-pandemic levels and respond to high demand from travelers, carriers struggled with increasing delays and cancellations.

Nearly 25% of planes have landed more than 15 minutes late so far this year through July, according to government data. This is the lowest on-time arrival rate since 2014.

And almost 3% of flights have been canceled, the highest rate in at least a decade, excluding 2020, when thousands of flights were canceled when the pandemic shut down airlines.

“Our on-time performance is not back to our historical averages, but very respectable, and our mission is to get everyone where they want to go that day and not cancel their flight,” said Southwest Airlines chairman, Gary Kelly in the US House. Global Commercial Aviation Summit on 16 August. “So we’ll run a little later. … We have a way to go and priority no. 1 of our company is to get back to that operational excellence.”

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