July was the second busiest month in the history of DFW International Airport as 6.9 million passengers traveled through the airport during the peak of the summer vacation season.
Those passengers bound for cruises, family reunions, business trips and post-pandemic getaways took nearly 90% of all seats available on incoming and outgoing flights at DFW during the month.
Perhaps crowds would have been bigger if the return of travel hadn’t suddenly stalled this summer when airlines cut back to get a handle on a crippling shortage of pilots along with high delay and cancellation rates, partially caused by that pilot shortfall.
“Everything is sold out? that’s the main issue,” said Yolanda Meador, an Irving-based travel agent and owner of You Deserve It! Vacations. “And now we are getting to the fall when things are supposed to lighten up and it’s not slowing down.”
Shortages across the airline industry are causing subtle and overt changes to the US travel system. Major airlines such as 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 coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic:
Fewer pilots means fewer flights
A shortage of pilots looming over the travel industry for nearly two decades is now the main constraint for airlines, forcing carriers to cut recovery plans even though 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 every year, while only about 6,000 are being added.
“We expect to see a shortfall 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 on solutions.”
Airlines have responded by cutting flights this year. They’ve also said it could take years to get the problem under control.
Over this summer, airlines operated about 13% fewer flights than they did in summer 2019, according to flight schedule service Cirium. The trend is holding into the fall and winter months, too.
That means about 100,000 fewer flights each month across the airline industry.
That also means that there are fewer routes to fewer destinations, particularly to small cities. American Airlines has cut flying entirely to cities such as Dubuque, Iowa? Toledo, Ohio; and Islip and Ithaca in New York.
It’s changing who flies our planes
In 2019, 54% of all flights sold by American, Delta or United were operated by one of their smaller regional airline partners with names on the livery such as American Eagle, Endeavor and United Express. Some companies operating those flights, such as Compass, SkyWest and Republic, are independent and fly for larger carriers. Others, such as Envoy and Horizon, are owned by bigger airlines.
Now, it’s a lot less likely that passengers will fly on a regional jet because pilots who worked for those airlines are leaving for more money at American, United, Delta or Southwest. A majority of American Airlines flights were with regional carriers between October 2015 and the end of 2021, according to Cirium’s data. But fewer than half have been on regional carriers in 2022.
“Depending on the relationship between the regional carrier and the main airline — American Airlines owns some of their own — they can take those same, highly skilled pilots and re-muster them to fly larger aircraft with more passengers and lower costs,” said Mike 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 took buyouts to leave early. Those cutbacks only made the travel recovery harder as the need to hire new pilots grew.
“COVID struck during a period in which 30 years ago we had done some of the largest hiring that we’ve ever done in our history as an airline industry,” said American Airlines CEO Robert Isom at the US Travel Association Conference on Sept. 20. “So what it’s meant as pilots, I can’t fly beyond age 65, and they all retire at the exact same time.”
American said it plans to hire as many as 4,000 pilots by the end of 2023.
The planes are different, too
Riding on a regional airline also means flying on those small 50- to 76-seat jets made by Embraer or Bombardier. Those planes usually had a cabin that was four seats wide and primarily shuffled passengers from smaller cities to large hubs.
“We do have a hundred aircraft on the ground because of the pilot shortage, and it continues to be a real challenge,” said American Airlines vice president of global government affairs Stephen Neuman during the Regional Airline Association conference.
It’s not all bad news. Regional airline jets are smaller and have fewer amenities and premium seats than larger planes manufactured by Boeing and Airbus.
It can also be more economical for airlines. While that has meant parking some planes, carriers have been “upgauging” some flights to use bigger planes, even wide-bodies, for flights that used to be operated by smaller aircraft.
“Flying a jet is expensive, especially because of fuel and pilots, and those costs are measured across the number of seats flown,” Arnot said. “Regional jets have less seats — 76 or less — and so it’s just math that they have higher costs per seat flown.”
Low supply meets high demand
Airfares fell to historic lows in 2020 because of COVID-19. And while consumers enjoyed low airfares for nearly two years, prices surpassed pre-pandemic levels in April.
By May, the average airfare was 22% higher than it was during the same month in 2019, according to the consumer price index.
While the price gap narrowed as the summer peak subsided, travel agents say tickets are still expensive heading into the fall.
Austin-based travel agent Keith Waldon said it’s hard to find seats on airplanes, even for those willing to upgrade to business or first class.
“The front of the plane is selling out at full price, and there isn’t a lot of opportunity to upgrade,” said Waldon, founder of Departure Lounge travel agency. “A lot of our clients that have points saved up can’t use them.”
High prices have helped offset higher spending by airlines for fuel and labor. American made its first profit without government help since 2019 during the second quarter of this year. US airlines pulled in $2.2 billion in profits 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 get back to pre-pandemic levels and respond to high demand from travelers, carriers struggled with increased delays and cancellations.
Nearly 25% of planes have landed more than 15 minutes late so far this year through July, according to government data. That’s the lowest on-time arrival rate since 2014.
And almost 3% of flights have been cancelled, the highest rate in at least a decade excluding 2020, when thousands of flights were canceled when the pandemic blindsided airlines.
“Our on-time performance is not quite back to our historical averages but very respectable, and our mission is to get everybody where they want to go that day and not cancel their flight,” said Southwest Airlines chairman Gary Kelly at the US Chamber of Commerce Global Aerospace Summit on Aug. 16. “So we’re running a little bit later. … We have a ways to go, and our company’s No. 1 priority is to get back to that operational excellence.”