The following editorial originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer:
Unruly passengers objecting to masking rules and other restrictions aren’t the only ones disrupting flights — misbehaving airlines are also causing travel chaos.
And they, too, ought to face consequences.
Tens of thousands of passengers had their plans upended when American Airlines suddenly canceled about 1,900 flights two weekends ago.
American Airlines blamed the cancellations on windy conditions at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and staff shortages. The wind was a factor, but its overall effect was, well, overblown. The real problem is a staffing shortage, and that’s the airline’s fault.
Robert Mann, an industry analyst, said the cancellations were brought on by the practice of allocating staff duty time on a monthly basis. “From a customer’s perspective,” he said, “there really is no excuse for it.”
The mass cancellations are the latest snarl to disrupt travel plans. Southwest Airlines had a similar problem in June when it dropped more than 2,600 flights and again last month. Spirit Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights between July 30 and Aug. 9.
A canceled flight is often more than an inconvenience. Some stranded passengers miss one-time-only events such as graduations, weddings, funerals and birthdays.
The airlines say the disruptions reflect difficulties in ramping up staffing to meet a surge in demand as vaccines made flying a safer option. But a staffing shortage isn’t supposed to have occurred.
Taxpayers provided more than $50 billion in relief funds to ensure that the airline industry would not cut jobs during COVID shutdowns. Instead, some airlines let their staffing shrink, leaving them flatfooted as the arrival of COVID vaccines rapidly revived air travel.
“It’s really unforgivable,” said William McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports Advocacy. “They had one job to do and that was to make sure that their staffing remained full.”
Instead the airlines offered early retirements and buyouts and imposed furloughs and layoffs. “That’s exactly what the taxpayers were telling them not to do,” McGee said.
Today’s commercial flying conditions are not what Congress and former President Jimmy Carter had in mind when the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was passed and signed into law. The idea was worthwhile; it got the federal government out of regulating fares, routes and how new airlines enter the market.
But advocates of the law also thought it would spur competition among airlines that would in turn cut prices and improve service. Instead there was a wave of mergers.
Now these near monopolies seem impervious to consumer complaints and the nation’s need for predictable air service. It’s time for Congress to look again at how to make the airline industry more responsive to the public its airlines are certified to serve.