Your vacation at risk
Packed planes, jump in cancellations, force millions to scramble for flights; angered pilots cite job cuts.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As the summer travel season gets into full swing airline cancellations are soaring, raising questions in some quarters whether passengers are now paying the price for job cuts and other cost-saving steps taken by airlines since 9/11.
Airlines canceled nearly 100,000 flights in June, more than double the number a year earlier, according to figures from flight tracking service FlightStats, leaving millions of travelers scrambling to find seats. With airlines filling a record percentage of the available seats so far this year, that could leave some travelers waiting a day or more to make their trip.
And the problem was not isolated to June. For the first half of the year, cancellations jumped 54 percent, according to FlightStats.
The Air Line Pilots Association says a growing part of the problem is flight crews at the nation's airlines being stretched too thin, with pilots having to fly more hours under contracts reached with carries facing huge losses.
Last month the ALPA unit at Northwest Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500) gave management there a vote of no-confidence, saying that bad scheduling and an insufficient number of pilots meant the airline was losing badly-needed revenue. Northwest had more than 2,100 flights cancelled in June, or 5.6 of its schedule, according to FlightStats. That's more than seven times above its cancellations a year earlier.
The problem was worse at the end of the month, after the bad weather had passed, as pilots were unavailable for flights. On May 24 FlightStats shows Northwest canceled about one flight out of seven.
"I think there is a potential for the problem to be more widespread," said Monty Montgomery, a Northwest captain with 21 years at the carrier and a spokesman for the union there. "They can all keep cost lower by lower staffing, but it doesn't allow for flexibility in the face of weather delays, or other disruptions."
Northwest got the most publicity about cancellations, but it wasn't alone. AMR Corp (Charts, Fortune 500). unit American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, saw canceled flights reach 3.6 percent of its scheduled flights, up 388 percent from a year earlier, according to FlightStats. JetBlue Airways (Charts), hurt by well known flight cancellation problems after an ice storm in February, saw cancellations soar 10-fold in June, as canceled flights reached 3 percent of its total. US Airways Group (Charts, Fortune 500) also saw 3 percent of its flights canceled, more than double a year earlier.
In fact Southwest Airlines (Charts, Fortune 500) was the only carrier among the nation's eight largest to see any drop in cancellations in June. As a group, those eight carriers have seen 2.2 percent of flights canceled in June, nearly triple the rate a year earlier.
The FAA allows pilots to have 100 hours a month of flight time, which starts being counted when the plane pushes back from the gate and runs until it gets to the gate at the next airport.
Most major airlines have a contract limit for hours that pilots would be required to fly that is less than the FAA maximum, but those contract limits have risen in recent years. But the airlines could count on having pilots fly extra hours above the contract limits for extra pay and still be within the FAA rules. As the contract requirements have risen closer to the federal limits, there's less flexibility for both the airlines and the pilots.
Northwest said its problems were due to bad weather early in June that left it without pilots with enough hours to fly late in the month under FAA regulations.
It said it is moved as quickly as it could to address the problems by scaling back on its schedule, and is now flying about 3 percent less flights and working to rehire and retrain pilots who had been furloughed as the airline went through bankruptcy.
The Air Transport Association, which represents major carriers, said most of the canceled flights were from weather and air traffic control issues, not crew shortages or changes in the contract. But it does concede airlines are now working with fewer pilots trying to cover more flights than in the past.
"The carriers are no long in position to pay crews to sit around and wait for weather to happen," said Dave Castelveter, spokesman for the trade group. "In the environment that carriers operate in today, they don't have the luxury of excess staff."
He also stressed that even with the recent increases in flight delays and cancellations, only a small percentage of flights end up being canceled. But he agreed that it can be more difficult for a passenger whose flight is canceled to make other arrangements than it used to be.
"The airlines can no longer afford to fly half-empty airplanes, just like they can no longer afford to have excess staff," he said. "They had to right-size and rationalize the fleets. That means when there is a disruption, there are less available seats."
Castelveter said the industry needs the FAA to start taking steps soon to start improving the air traffic control system and cut down on delays, not just to reduce the fuel being wasted, but also to stop delays from eating into flight time limits.
"Full implementation of that technology would be 2025, but you can begin to make a difference within a year," he said.
Meara McLaughlin, a vice president at Flight Stats, said the problem was not only flight crews being stretched thinner but pilots not being as willing to make an extra effort due to poor labor relations at many carriers. The deep pay cuts and reduced pensions the airlines have forced union pilots to accept in recent years have caused problems beyond the strict regulatory limits.
"Not only is it a lack of flight and duty time but a lack of good will," she said. "This summer is reaping the fruit of situation that has grown over a number of years."
Airline consultant Mike Boyd agreed that pilot morale is causing the scheduling problems as much or more than contractual and flight limit issues. "You're dealing with an industry with labor unions that are very unhappy campers," he said. "You have people who might have flown extra hours who didn't in June."
He said part of the problem is the industry is having an unusually tough time finding the new pilots it needs.
"United Airlines is trying to hire 400 more pilots. But it wants to merge with another carrier, and pilots know that people at bottom of the seniority list are the ones who get booted off after a merger. The starting pay in the industry at the regional carriers sucks."
Boyd said airlines are finding, like Northwest, that many pilots furloughed after Sept. 11 are passing up the chance to return to work due to cuts in pay and benefits. And hiring regional airline pilots and training them is expensive and time-consuming, he added.
"Many of them love flying, but they found other jobs that pay as well or better that don't require time away from their families," said Boyd about the pilots furloughed from different carriers. "The benefits that used to be there aren't there any more. A lot of people aren't going back."