Since the start of the pandemic, U.S. airlines have received $54 billion in federal aid to help cover payroll expenses. In return, they were prohibited from furloughing or laying off workers. However, they were allowed to persuade tens of thousands of employees to take buyouts, early retirement or leaves of absence.
"The staffing shortage is across the board. On the pilot side, it's a training backlog," said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. "Southwest came into the summer with very little margin."
Murray said many pilots coming back from leave are still getting federally required training to refresh their skills and aren't yet eligible to fly. When storms cause long delays, pilots can reach their FAA limit on the number of hours they are allowed to work, and there aren't enough backups to step in, he said. On top of that, he said, Southwest pushed for an "aggressive" summer schedule to capitalize on rising travel demand.
Since June 14, Southwest has averaged more than 1,300 daily flights delays -- a staggering 40% of its schedule -- according to figures from tracking service Flightaware.com.
At American Airlines, unions say labor shortages are contributing to delays and the scrubbing of up to 80 flights a day from the schedule through mid-July. In echoes of Southwest, the pilots' union at American said management did not act quickly enough to retrain 1,600 pilots who were temporarily furloughed then rehired last year or replace the 1,000 who retired.
Airlines have seen a surge in unruly passengers, and some experts predict it will get worse this summer as planes become even more crowded. Airlines have reported more than 3,200 incidents of unruly passengers since Jan. 1. Most involve people refusing to wear masks, as required by the federal government. Some of those passengers face large fines.
Not all hope is lost.
Airlines that pushed people to quit a year ago are now beginning to hire again, which could help fix staffing shortages. Delta, for example, plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots by next summer, starting with about 75 by this August.