It’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States, the unofficial start of summer — and summer vacations. But as people look forward to enjoying some time off, there’s a catch: On the heels of the pandemic, pent-up demand for travel and persistent staffing shortages, air travel is once again predicted to be difficult this year.
In fact, one travel expert goes so far as to describe what’s on the horizon as “hellish.” Suzanne Rowan Kelleher writes in Forbes that this summer is going to be even worse than last year’s disastrous season. She recalls: “After the aviation industry ground to a virtual halt during the pandemic, it could not ramp up fast enough to handle the massive post-pandemic crush of people finally traveling again. Tens of thousands of flights were delayed and cancelled, travelers were left stranded, countless pieces of baggage were lost, and an aging and outdated infrastructure creaked and strained under the stress of it all.”
The aftershocks of last year’s airport nightmares continue to reverberate because many of the problems that faced the industry then still are unresolved. Furthermore, earlier this year, a malfunction in the Federal Aviation Administration’s database system led to thousands of flights being delayed or cancelled. “The F.A.A. has struggled to quickly update systems and processes, many of which were put in place decades ago, to keep up with technological advancements and a sharp increase in the number of flights and passengers,” writes Niraj Chokshi for The New York Times.
According to the Forbes article, the F.A.A. has invested billions of dollars in a multiyear modernization initiative, known as NextGen. Of the agency’s $23.6 billion annual budget, $1 billion is earmarked for NextGen.”
Meanwhile, ongoing personnel issues keep plaguing the industry. “When air travel quickly rebounded, airlines, like every other business, struggled to hire and train employees, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers,” notes Chokshi. In response, airlines are hiring more staff — 487,000 full-time employees, the most since October 2001 — and flying bigger planes with more passengers. Yet the problems persist.
Air-traffic controller shortages are also a serious concern, and this traces all the way back to the 2013 United States budget sequestration, per Forbes. Kelleher quotes Paul Rinaldi, a former air traffic controller and president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association: “We have never made it back up [in staffing] since sequestration. And now here we are 10 years later, almost to the date, and we’re looking at the same type of draconian cuts.”
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