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The Morning Dispatch: Flight Risks
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The Morning Dispatch: Flight Risks

Pandemic aftereffects and pilot shortages are grounding record numbers of planes as the summer travel rush heats up.

Happy Tuesday! Congratulations to the Cambodian fisherman who caught what is believed to be the world’s largest recorded freshwater fish: A 660-pound, 13-foot-long stingray.

Just think, that could theoretically be floating beneath you in the lake this summer!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported Monday that at least 200 civilians in the country’s Oromia region were killed over the weekend in an attack allegedly perpetrated by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The massacre—which primarily targeted the Amhara ethnic group—is believed to be related to fighting between the Ethiopian government and the OLA, which has aligned itself with Tigrayan rebels in the country’s ongoing civil war. An OLA spokesman denied the allegations, claiming Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is “again blaming the OLA for atrocities committed by its own retreating fighters.”

  • Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced Monday the country’s governing coalition will dissolve Parliament in the coming days, teeing up another round of elections later this fall—Israel’s fifth in the last three years. Cobbled together last year with support from eight different political parties from the right, left, and center, the coalition had been on shaky ground in recent months after a handful of defections eliminated its parliamentary majority.

  • Israel has expanded its opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions onto Iranian territory through drone strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and attacks on a drone base, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. Iran also blamed Israel for the killing of a top Iranian military officer in Tehran last month—Israeli officials suspected the man of running hit teams targeting Israelis.

  • Employees at a Baltimore-area Apple store voted 65 to 33 in favor of unionization over the weekend, marking the first successful union drive within the multi-trillion-dollar tech company that raised its starting pay for hourly workers to $22 an hour last month. They’ll join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers—an industrial trade union that represents more than 300,000 employees—and workers at several other stores around the country are considering following suit.

Not Ready for Takeoff

(Photo by George Rose / Getty Images.)

If you’re planning on flying this summer, you may be in for a bumpier ride than [REDACTED TO AVOID TOP GUN: MAVERICK SPOILERS] when they stole that [REDACTED TO AVOID TOP GUN: MAVERICK SPOILERS] to get back to the [REDACTED TO AVOID TOP GUN: MAVERICK SPOILERS].

About 2.4 million people passed through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security checkpoints on Friday—the highest single-day tally since Thanksgiving—and almost a third of flights arriving at U.S. airports were delayed, according to flight tracking platform FlightAware. Interruptions continued throughout the weekend, and about 3 percent of all U.S. flights on Sunday were canceled entirely. 

Those travelers hanging around in the terminal for hours likely paid a premium for the privilege: Airfares—after plummeting in the first year of the pandemic—have increased 38 percent over the past year according to May’s consumer price index data, and are now 25 percent higher than they were in May 2019.

As customer frustration mounts, various stakeholders are rushing to limit the reputational damage. “We empathize and share in your frustration over the delays, cancellations, and disrupted travel plans you’ve experienced. We agree; it is unacceptable,” the Pilots of Delta Airlines wrote in a recent public letter published by their union. “​​We have been working on our days off, flying a record amount of overtime to help you get to your destination. At the current rate, by this fall, our pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than in the entirety of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date.”

Tarmac misery generally increases around holidays and in the summer—extra travelers means tighter schedules that are more vulnerable to cascading delays—and a bad set of thunderstorms across the country in recent days has only exacerbated the issue. An American Airlines spokesman said storms accounted for the “vast majority” of recent delays, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that about 70 percent of flight delays in a typical year can be attributed to the weather.

But according to FlightAware data, 2022 is no typical year. Flight cancellations from January through mid-June are up about 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels (from 2 percent of all flights during those months in 2019 to 3 percent in 2022), and the number of flights facing some sort of delay has increased about 18 percent over the same time period. That’s despite overall ridership still hovering at approximately 90 percent of what it was in 2019.

Like just about every sector of the economy, the airline industry is still dealing with the aftereffects of COVID-19 shutdowns. To cut costs as demand dropped to zero essentially overnight, airlines laid off tens of thousands of workers—and offered early retirements to thousands more. Tens of billions of dollars in federal pandemic aid staunched some of the bleeding, but nowhere near all of it—and it’s proven difficult to ramp back up in today’s tight labor market. Plus, of course, COVID-19 infections can still (temporarily) take down pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers—anyone in the vast string of employees getting passengers through the sky.

“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on an earnings call this spring. In a LinkedIn post a few months ago, he pushed back against critics who said United’s employee vaccine mandate (which has since been repealed) or compensation structure is to blame for the shortages.

“The root of the problem is that it costs over $100,000 and takes five or more years to obtain all the training to become eligible to fly for a major airline,” he wrote. “A commercial pilot’s journey is technically complex, building hours and obtaining certificates in a process that is difficult to navigate without experienced support. On top of that, major airlines traditionally didn’t need to recruit and instead relied primarily on the military and people who were passionate about aviation to get training and certification on their own.”

That’s no longer the case. United opened its own flight training school in January, and Alaska Airlines followed suit two months later. Two weeks ago, United committed another $100 million to expanding a training center to include additional flight simulators. Delta has dropped a requirement that its pilots hold a four-year degree, and some airlines have sought to poach pilots from Australia, which has similar certification standards to the United States. Indianapolis-based Republic Airways petitioned the FAA in April (unsuccessfully, thus far) for permission to hire pilots from its in-house training program after 750 flight hours—half the 1500-hour requirement implemented in the wake of a fatal 2009 crash in Buffalo—and Sen. Lindsey Graham is considering introducing legislation that would raise the mandatory pilot retirement age from 65 to at least 67.

The shortages aren’t affecting all parts of the country equally. Regional Airline Association head Faye Malarkey Black noted at a recent TSA forum that smaller communities outside major transportation hubs have been hit “first and worst” by the pilot scarcity, as airlines prioritize their most popular and profitable routes. Carriers—from JetBlue, to Delta, to Southwest, to Alaska, to Spirit—have cut dozens of offerings in recent months. Just yesterday, American announced it will eliminate service to Toledo, Ohio; Ithaca, New York; and Islip, New York later this summer. 

To attract enough talent just to continue operating, two American Airlines-owned regional carriers—Piedmont and Envoy Air—announced this month they were hiking pilot pay by about 50 percent through at least 2024. “Attrition of the regional pilots, particularly the captains, has really spiked to the point where we’re not able to put our fleet in the air,” Piedmont CEO Eric Morgan told CNBC.

To fill in as many gaps as they can, carriers and regulators are getting creative. American and United Airlines have both expanded partnerships with Landline, a bus company, to replace certain regional routes and transport travelers from larger hubs to smaller cities. In recent weeks, American launched a new program that analyzes air traffic and potential disruptions so it can proactively delay key flights to head off cancellations. The TSA has about 1,000 security screeners who can move to airports with long checkpoint lines, and the FAA has reportedly weighed allowing planes to fly at lower altitudes to dodge bad weather. 

If all this has you dreading your Fourth of July travel plans, you’re not alone. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned airline executives on a call last week that he’ll be watching for improvements over that holiday weekend,and may consider fining airlines if they fail to deliver adequate consumer protection. “Air travelers should be able to expect reliable service as demand returns to levels not seen since before the pandemic,” Buttigieg tweeted Friday.

Easier said than done: The day after that conference call, the Associated Press reported, Buttigieg’s own flight from Washington to New York was canceled. He ended up driving instead.

Worth Your Time

  • Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest Bloomberg column explains why he thinks the GOP is more likely to embrace the updated version of Sen. Mitt Romney’s family policy than the original proposal. “For years, supporters of legal abortion have accused opponents of favoring life only until birth, and then doing nothing to help mothers and children afterward. Now that legislators are going to have the power to set policy on abortion, what had been a debater’s point is becoming a real political and moral challenge,” he writes. “The new Republican bill is a partial response. Parents would be eligible for the benefit halfway through a pregnancy. And it’s no coincidence that co-sponsor [Sen. Steve] Daines is the head of the Senate Pro-Life Caucus. Republicans may be starting to realize that a practical anti-abortion agenda has to include policies that make raising children a viable proposition for more people, and to develop an agenda that addresses the economic, and not just the moral, dimensions of family life. Not a moment too soon.”

  • And as if on cue, Caroline Kitchener is out with a piece for the Washington Post telling the story of Brooke Alexander, an 18-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas, who likely would’ve aborted the twins she gave birth to earlier this year were it not for her state’s recently implemented heartbeat bill. “Brooke knew the little things about her daughters that no one else would notice. Olivia had a higher-pitched cry. Kendall was harder to soothe. You could always tell when they were about to wake up, because they’d start to smile,” Kitchener writes. “Looking at her daughters, Brooke struggled to articulate her feelings on abortion. On one hand, she said, she absolutely believed that women should have the right to choose what’s best for their own lives. On the other, she knew that, without the Texas law, her babies might not be here. ‘Who’s to say what I would have done if the law wasn’t in effect?’ she said. ‘I don’t want to think about it.’ Brooke considered all that she’d lost: Long nights at the skate park, trips to the mall, dropping $30 on a crab dinner just because she felt like it. ‘I can’t just really be free,’ she said. ‘I guess that really sums it up. That’s a big thing that I really miss.’ She sat silently for a while, Olivia’s hand wrapped around her finger. ‘It’s really scary thinking that I wouldn’t have them,’ she said.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) is back tonight! Tune in at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT for a discussion between Haley and Steve about the reporting process behind Haley’s new piece on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Then, Sarah and Jonah will pop in to answer viewer questions. As an added bonus, Dispatch members will now be able to listen to recordings of Dispatch Live after the fact on select podcast platforms. Click here for more information.

  • On the site today, the second section of Haley’s definitive report on the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is up—detailing how much resistance the bill faced from American corporations eager not to get too crosswise with the cheap labor and booming consumer market of China. And John Gustavsson has a piece recommending a policy platform for a possible post-Roe Republican Party, including public funding for maternity care and paid maternity leave.

Let Us Know

Have you altered any travel plans this summer due to either cost or flight availability? What was your worst travel experience of all time?

Declan Garvey's Headshot

Declan Garvey

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton's Headshot

Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.