Jun 27, 2022 - News

Seattle not immune to airline staffing shortages, flight delays

Illustration of an airplane on a runway shaped like a "no" symbol.
Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Seattle appears to be in a better position to weather the airline industry's ongoing staffing shortages thanks to a new contract with pay boosts for some airport workers.

Yes, but: It's still not immune to the labor pressures that already are disrupting summer vacation plans — and that may just be the beginning: Flight delays and cancellations nationwide could extend well into next year, some experts say.

Meanwhile, air fare rates are outpacing inflation and remain sky high heading into the thick of summer.

The big picture: U.S. airlines had two years and billions of dollars in government aid to make sure they were ready for passengers to return to the skies after the pandemic, Axios' What's Next newsletter co-author Joann Muller reports.

But, but, but: Demand has snapped back so quickly that they don't have enough people to fly the planes, serve the passengers or unload their bags.

Zoom in: On any given day in recent weeks, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has experienced a dozen or more delayed flights and a handful of cancellations, per the flight tracking website flightaware.com.

  • That's not great, but a far cry from April and May, when The Seattle Times reported the hometown airline, Alaska Airlines, experienced about 50 cancellations of its roughly 1,200 flights per day due to a pilot shortage.
  • Last week, Alaska agreed to a contract extension, giving pay raises to about 5,300 members of the machinists' union, which includes gate agents, ramp workers and other airport employees, The Times reported.
  • But Alaska has yet to ink a deal with the unions representing some 3,000 pilots and another 2,000 airport workers.

What's happening: Overall, U.S. airlines are offering bigger paychecks in the hopes of easing the labor crunch.

  • Still, higher labor rates could also accelerate the phaseout of smaller regional jets, leaving some markets unconnected to large hub airports.

Alaska and United opened flight training schools earlier this year and are offering financial aid to help defray the $70,000 cost of becoming a pilot.

  • Regardless, the new programs won't produce certified crew members for several years, per Skift.com.

The bottom line: Despite the staff shortages and enormous economic headwinds, revenge travel demand remains strong, giving airlines hope for a modest return to profitability this year.

  • "Never in my 30-year career have we seen demand that is as robust as it is," Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci told Axios.
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