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Many Airlines Are Ill-Prepared For The Wave Of Returning Passengers

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The airline industry in the U.S. is bouncing back from the pandemic. After losing tens of billions of dollars, many airlines are now turning a profit. But as millions of Americans return to the skies, they're finding many of the hassles of flying are back, too, and some critics say the airlines were not fully prepared to handle a surge in demand. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPORT AMBIENCE)

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Dirk Fletcher is at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, waiting - again - this time for his luggage after returning from a business trip to...

DIRK FLETCHER: Tampa. It was a heck of a trip.

SCHAPER: The 52-year-old describes nearly two full days of flight delays and cancellations.

FLETCHER: I was supposed to come home at 7 o'clock yesterday in Tampa, and the incoming flight was delayed. That flight kept getting pushed and pushed. They finally put me up, had me on an 8 o'clock flight this morning that kept getting delayed and delayed.

SCHAPER: Fletcher finally arrived at O'Hare almost 18 hours later than he had planned. Flying this summer, he says, is crazier than ever.

FLETCHER: It seems more than it was before, you know, in terms of just the chaotic-ness (ph).

SCHAPER: Domestic air travel demand is just about back to pre-pandemic levels, but that means much of what we hate about air travel is back, too - long lines, crowded terminals. There's been a shocking increase in sometimes violent incidents involving unruly passengers and, yes, thousands upon thousands of flight delays and cancellations. Some are due to the weather, storms, heat and even smoke from wildfires. But at some airlines, weather delays are compounded by having too few pilots available.

DENNIS TAJER: I'm flying full airplanes with very little buffer should something happen in the weather.

SCHAPER: Captain Dennis Tajer is a pilot for American Airlines and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. He says American added back thousands of flights to its schedule but was slow in bringing back the thousands of pilots who took voluntary leaves of absence or were furloughed during the pandemic.

TAJER: All of those pilots needed training before they could get back out on the line and fly our passengers, and management just miscalculated.

SCHAPER: There are similar staffing problems at other airlines, with shortages of ground personnel, too, from baggage handlers and gate agents to catering workers and wheelchair attendants.

KURT EBENHOCH: But it hasn't been a smooth restart in most cases.

SCHAPER: Kurt Ebenhoch is with the consumer rights group Travel Fairness Now.

EBENHOCH: The airlines did such an aggressive job of reducing their staffing that now there's not enough people. So reservation centers are inundated, websites are crashing. So it's tough going.

SCHAPER: On a call with analysts and reporters announcing second-quarter financial results last week, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly admitted the road to recovery has been bumpy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY KELLY: I blame it all on the pandemic. It's messy. It's messy coming in. It's certainly messy coming out.

SCHAPER: Consumer advocates like Ebenhoch acknowledge the airlines are trying to recover from the worst industry downturn in history, as the pandemic caused air travel demand to plummet more than 90% last year. But Ebenhoch notes that the airlines got more than $50 billion in federal aid to keep pilots and other workers on the payroll so they'd be ready to go when travelers return.

EBENHOCH: We can't forget that they are on the road to recovery because of the generosity of the U.S. taxpayers.

SCHAPER: Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell sent a letter to several airline CEOs demanding an explanation of pilot and other employee shortages, saying the billions in federal funding was supposed to, quote, "ensure an easier ramp-up when air travel returned." She questions whether some airlines, quote, "failed to meet the intent of taxpayer funding and prepare for the surge that we are witnessing now."

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIVID LOW SKY'S "(SHE SMELLS LIKE) SPRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.