Politico

Airlines got a $50B pandemic bailout. Passengers got chaos in the skies anyway.

Orignally published on 2021-11-20 12:01:54 by www.politico.com

Aviation industry experts are skeptical that weather is always the root cause, though, instead blaming tight crew scheduling and lack of personnel slack in general. For instance, Southwest said its October flight meltdown was over air traffic control delays and weather in Florida. But no other airline that operates out of Florida had such severe problems in the same span.

In an Oct. 21 earnings report, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged a personnel crunch at the airline, saying its “available staffing fell below plan and, along with other factors, caused us to miss our operational ontime performance targets.”

‘What did you do with all the money?’

Last year, as lawmakers began to grasp the nature of the pandemic challenge at the country’s doorstep, Congress enacted the CARES Act, H.R. 748 (116), with a tranche of money for airlines to use to protect their workers — from crews to baggage handlers — from mass furloughs. The idea was to keep employees, many of whom require training and certifications to perform their jobs, in place so that operations could resume seamlessly as travel ramped back up.

“The support our government has entrusted to us carries immense responsibility and an obligation that American Airlines is privileged to undertake,” CEO Doug Parker said in April 2020 following the news that grants were on the way. “It is our privilege to continue flying through the downturn and to be in a ready position as our country and the world return to the skies.”

Ultimately, federal money saved hundreds of thousands of flight attendant, pilot and support jobs. Yet the disruptions experienced over recent weeks are expected to continue as travel climbs. Southwest has already decided to cut flights from its schedule for December and through early next year to try to get ahead of its staffing concerns and avoid last-minute cancellations of the sort that strand passengers.

Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, the union for pilots at American, said it’s not just lawmakers who are frustrated with the way airlines are behaving. He said crews aren’t always being managed well, with pilots and flight attendants waiting around after a canceled flight for airline planners to attempt to reschedule them as the clock ticks down on their shift.

He said pilots also want to be able to have a better-planned routine that doesn’t devolve into chaos at the first hint of trouble. He noted that the relief funding — $25 billion in grants, and $25 billion more in financial assistance — was supposed to provide a cushion to give airlines the ability to execute flights in a post-pandemic world.

“So we’re asking our management team, even before these [travel] events, ‘What did you do with all the money?'” Tajer said.

Tajer didn’t have an answer, but Norton did. She speculated that it appears that “who really benefited are the shareholders of the airlines — that’s one of the reasons that I’m requesting a hearing.”

Like Norton, Tajer said he remains dumbfounded as to how these problems could happen knowing the money was there as a protective measure.

“I did interviews everywhere, along with other union groups and the airlines saying, ‘We’ve got to be ready for the recovery, that’s why this is important; this is an investment in that recovery,'” Tajer said. “And now here I sit talking about, ‘How in the world could you not be ready for this?'”

Congress weighs in

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has already been probing the issue. Over the summer, she asked airlines for information on the staffing shortages that some experts contend have led to flight cancellations and disarray.

Specifically she has asked for current staffing figures, information about layoffs, buyouts and furloughs, and other statistics that will form the basis of what could be an uncomfortable hearing on the matter when her committee convenes in December.

Congress put strings on its bailout money — chief among them that airlines agreed to stop furloughing or laying off their employees during the pandemic. But John Breyault of the National Consumers League said he suspects that even with that directive, airlines got creative in how they balanced their capacity, avoiding furloughs and layoffs in part by offering incentives for employees to take voluntary leave or retire early. Though allowed under the terms of the legislation, that’s contributed to the current staffing crunch, he suggested.

Orignally published on 2021-11-20 12:01:54 by www.politico.com

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