Summer travel surge has airlines scrambling to unwind cuts

Airlines are planning for a surge in summer travel that could make skies look like it’s 2019 again, but it will take a lot of work to get planes and employees ready.

The four big U.S. airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — have more than 650,000 flights scheduled for June, which would make it even busier than the same month in 2019, according to Diio by Cirium, an aviation data analytics firm. Carriers are looking to capture pent-up travel demand and momentum from the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s a good problem to have with so many people expected to fly,” said Allied Pilots Association spokesman Dennis Tajer. “But it takes a long time to crew up an airplane and try to undo the cuts from the last year.”

The airline industry has shed more than 41,000 employees since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That includes more than 10,000 at American and 4,600 at Southwest. But that understates the depth of the cuts because many crewmembers are still working reduced hours with fewer flights taking off and landing.

“Really, we’re just gearing up for the May schedule, which is looking to be about 80 percent of summer 2019,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Lindsey Martin.

That could change soon.

Almost exactly a year after U.S. airport traffic dropped to less than 100,000 passengers during the worst stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines are now facing the enormous task of getting employees and planes ready to fly again.

Airline advanced bookings and customer surveys are showing that travel could bounce back this summer, even if international and business travel lag behind. That means getting mothballed aircraft and employees ready over the next six weeks.

The last of American Airlines’ 8,000 flight attendants who were furloughed in October will be back on schedules as of May 1.

It could take through the end of the year for all of American’s 1,605 pilots to return from furlough after going through training updates, getting vaccinated and finishing other regulatory work needed to fly again.

American’s 17,500 furloughed employees have been getting paid since Dec. 1 thanks to $12 billion in government payroll support, but there hasn’t been enough flights until now to justify bringing employees back to work.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines said this week that it would recall 209 pilots from voluntary leave they signed up for last summer, when pandemic uncertainty reached its peak.

American Airlines reported last month that bookings were approaching 90 percent of 2019 levels, prompting the Fort Worth-based carrier to announce that it would bring back most of its fleet by this May. Southwest also reported a surge in new bookings starting in the middle of February.

Industry optimism got a further boost around spring break travel, with the streak of 1 million or more travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints now standing at 27 straight days.

“The flights have been full all winter to any beach destination or outdoor destination,” said Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants representing workers at American. “There haven’t been as many hours available everywhere, but if you are somewhere like Charlotte or Dallas, it’s been quite busy.”

Last week, airlines were about 75 percent full, by far the fullest since the pandemic began. Much of that is attributable to the fact that airlines are still flying about 40 percent fewer flights than they did before the pandemic.

“It will take some work, but remember that we are still going to end this year a third below where we were in 2019,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant with Boyd Group International. “There are still people waiting for the government to open up travel and for businesses to say their workers can get on planes again.”

Updated: 
04/21/2021 - 9:00am