Romulus — Companies in the airline industry that slashed employment levels two years ago amid pandemic concerns are now heavily pushing to hire additional workers as travel demand climbs heading into the summer travel season.
But a limited pilot pool and low unemployment rates will make it difficult to get staff fast to reduce travel disruptions like those seen during Memorial Day weekend, when more than 7,000 flights were canceled. Travel demand is expected to remain robust despite inflation continuing at a four-decade high.
More than a quarter of travelers plan to spend “significantly” more this summer over what they spent in 2019 on travel in part due to the higher prices but also because they have the savings to spend, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
At the same time, U.S. airline industry employment has increased, while not quite rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry’s employee ranks rose from 705,628 in April 2021 to 751,165 in April 2022. Industry employment peaked in February 2020 at 753,382.
Flyers say delays and cancellations have become more common this year. Bikash Verma, 60, of Boston, who was flying through Detroit on Friday, was stuck in London in late April when computer problems at British Airways resulted in repeated cancellations of flights to his ultimate destination, Paris, he said.
“They put us in a hotel, and some days to night, just stay at the airport,” he said. “Every hour they’d say, ‘Now, now, now, next flight, next flight.’ You’d waste the whole day at the airport. And nighttime, they’d throw you in some hotel. It was pretty bad.”
TSA checkpoint travel figures show the number of passengers is nearing pre-pandemic figures. On Sunday, June 12, about 2.4 million passengers went through TSA, nearing the 2.6 million processed the same day in 2019. And after having its lowest passenger numbers since 1984 in 2020, Detroit Metro Airport has seen movement toward pre-pandemic levels, with a 61% year-over-year increase in travelers through the first four months of 2022.
“With the northern summer travel season now upon us, two things are clear: two years of border restrictions have not weakened the desire for the freedom to travel,” said Willie Walsh, International Air Transport Association director general, in a statement. “Where it is permitted, demand rapidly is returning to pre-COVID levels.”
And the “failings in how governments managed the pandemic” has caused “uncertainty until the last minute, leaving little time to restart an industry that was largely dormant for two years,” Walsh added. “It is no wonder that we are seeing operational delays in some locations. In those few locations where these problems are recurring, solutions need to be found so passengers can travel with confidence.”
Mini Samuel, 48, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said travelers should have patience. That’s what she learned after her family waited for more than an hour on the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale airport to depart to Detroit on Friday. Samuel and her husband, Tom, had to keep their three children — aged 17, 13 and 10 — busy while they awaited takeoff.
“It was stressful just waiting,” she said while in baggage claim at Detroit Metro on Friday. “We are glad to be here.”
The flight was delayed for luggage to get loaded, Samuel said. Passengers were waiting in long lines at the Fort Lauderdale airport as airline employees rushed to get them through check-in. The family arrived two hours before their flight Friday morning, Samuel said, “but even that seemed like it was cutting it close.”
Manufacturing consultant Pat Lowe, 54, of Brighton, who has traveled throughout the pandemic, noticed an increase in passengers this spring but hasn’t experienced any cancellations and only experienced a flight delayed by weather.
He remembers once being one of three passengers on a plane, so starting to see people fill up the seats again “is phenomenal.”
“I had the same parking spot in the parking deck for months,” he said in baggage claim at Detroit Metro airport Friday. “And now I have to hunt for a parking spot. To see the boom is great.”
Seeking to staff up
Delta Air Lines Inc., which uses Detroit Metro as a hub and is the airport’s largest carrier, had an 83% increase in its revenue passenger miles — the number of miles traveled by paying flyers — from 2020 to 2021, but the airline was still 43% off from 2019 levels.
“There’s a little bit of drag from international routes that are still kind of lagging,” said Burkett Huey, MorningStar aviation analyst. “I know that domestic travel is pretty much back.
“I’ve been hopeful that it would return … the summer of 2021 was really encouraging to see leisure travel come back. And this summer is going to be big to see the extent to which international travel and business travel can come back.”
Meanwhile, there are 1.5 million job openings in leisure and hospitality, with the sector accounting for 1 in 8 of all U.S. job openings, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
“While other sectors of the economy have recovered from the pandemic, the travel workforce remains disproportionately depleted,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the association’s executive vice president of public affairs and policy, in a statement. “Structuring a whole-of-government approach to enact stabilizing policies to rebuild the travel industry, which prior to the pandemic represented one in ten American jobs, will help overcome the supply and demand challenges we face.”
Delta’s employment levels have also bounced back from 74,000 in 2020 to 83,000 as of December, according to a filing from the Securities and Exchange Commission. That’s still 8,000 workers below its ranks in 2019.
The airline hired more than 10,000 people in 2021 and added another 4,000 people this year, said Ed Bastian, Delta chief executive officer, on the company’s April 13 first-quarter earnings call.
Bastian added “it will take some time” before new pilots come on board. The airline is hiring flight attendants and “there’s a queue as to how … many people we can put through the training pipeline.”
But the real issue is at the airports. About two years ago, Delta “took over a lot of the functions at the airport that had been outsourced, catering, cleaning, wheelchair pushing,” Bastian said.
“The labor situation … has changed pretty dramatically over the course of the last two years,” he said. “We’ve been out ahead and that’s why you look at our operational stats over that time frame, we’ve led the industry consistently.”
To minimize travel disruptions that spiked with demand, Delta said in May it would decrease its flight schedule for the summer. From July 1 to Aug. 7, Delta plans to reduce service by about 100 daily departures, primarily in U.S. and Latin America markets Delta frequently serves.
The cut is intended to “improve operational reliability” for customers, the airline said.
Delta Chief Customer Experience Officer Allison Ausband said in a statement at that time: “More than any time in our history, the various factors currently impacting our operation — weather and air traffic control, vendor staffing, increased COVID case rates contributing to higher-than-planned unscheduled absences in some work groups — are resulting in an operation that isn’t consistently up to the standards Delta has set for the industry in recent years.”
From 2020 to 2021, United Airlines Inc. saw a 75% increase in its revenue passenger miles, but the airline is still down 46% from 2019, according to data the carrier filed with the SEC.
At United, the employee headcount dropped from 95,900 in 2019 to 74,400 in 2020 and is now back to 84,100, according to the SEC filing.
The airline has hosted job fairs and is offering various incentives to help bring on more talent. United told The Detroit News the airline will let employees work in another station that needs more team members to help ease spot staffing shortfalls.
But CEO Scott Kirby told investors on the company’s first-quarter earnings call April 21: “We don’t have a labor shortage. We’ve hired 6,000 people this year. We’re hiring 200 pilots a month. That’s not an issue for us.”
United has struggled to keep up with demand while its Boeing 777 planes were grounded after an engine failure occurred in February 2021. Last month, the airline said the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the return of 52 planes, CNBC reported.
Kirby did say “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.”
To support travel growth this summer, Southwest Airlines Co. increased headcount by about 3,300 in the first quarter of 2022 and plans to hire about 10,000 employees in 2022, the company said in a statement.
Food service struggle
Companies that serve air travelers before and after they fly are confronting staff shortages, too.
Thousands of workers were laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic and that has led Lisa Gilson, manager at Paradies-Lagardere, an umbrella company for dining and retail locations at airports nationwide, to wonder if the airline industry will ever recover its workforce from 2020.
Gilson, who oversees five dining businesses at Detroit Metro, said she could use five to 15 more employees in each of them.
“We were this untouchable industry for so long, then we got robbed (of employees),” Gilson said. “Where are the employees and why is this entire industry starving for employees?”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February 2020, the unemployment rate was 3.5% and was similar for May 2022, at 3.6%. Employers are having trouble understanding why the current workforce is not matching the workforce available before the pandemic since the unemployment rate is similar to the rate in 2020.
“The hiring process is a struggle,” said Samuel Larkins, general manager for the Gordon Biersch restaurant in the McNamara Terminal. Last week, he was working as a host, waiting tables and working in the dish pit. He said he looked at 60 applications for the restaurant that particular Monday and on average spends about two to three hours in his work day looking at job candidates.
“We’re all doing what we can do because we just can’t get people,” Larkins said. “I think in the last week I probably went through 120 to 130 people who may have applied, but they don’t show up (to the interview), which is odd.”
This amount of work put into looking for employees is not unique to Larkins. Gilson said she and her peers dedicate one day a week to hiring activities.
“I would say collectively as a company we’re probably dumping at least 50-60 hours a week into hiring … since the end of 2020,” Gilson said.