Air Travel

Airline Pilots Say They're Just as Frustrated With Summer Flight Cancellations as Travelers

Pilots are speaking up about how this summer's flight disruptions are causing record overtime, fatigue, and stress.
Pilot
Alex Gorham/Unsplash

As flight delays and cancellations continue to top the news ahead of the hectic Fourth of July travel weekend, passengers aren’t the only ones frustrated with the unreliable state of air travel—pilots are too.

“We're tired of standing in front of our guests and saying we're sorry,” says Captain Casey A. Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “It's a struggle for us all—we're all in it together.”

While factors like an uptick in travelers and more thunderstorms usually have an effect on summer flight schedules, this year's disruptions have been extreme. For example, before noon on Tuesday there were already more than 2,000 flight cancellations and 12,000 delays—including 505 cancellations and 1,221 delays in the U.S.—according to Flight Aware. And that's on what is an average Tuesday.

While pilot shortages are playing a role in the trouble, the issue is multi-layered and has been heading in this direction since before the pandemic. “We started seeing issues five years ago,” says Murray, who has been flying for three decades, including the 15 years with Southwest. “It’s the misuse of pilots and the inability to efficiently connect pilots to airplanes.”

Pilots at Southwest have been so frustrated, they recently held a demonstration at Dallas Love Field airport to highlight how the current situation is causing fatigue and stress among their ranks. More than 1,000 pilots, led by the union, showed up to the informational picket.

For Southwest, which has 9,600 pilots who operate on a point-to-point system (as opposed to other airlines that rely on hubs), sending just one pilot off their anticipated course can have a spiral effect on the entire system. These days, pilots are being reassigned about 30 to 50 percent of the time, meaning the airline is constantly trying to play catch up to steer every pilot back to the right place, causing a complex cascade of issues that spirals down to the passengers having to wait for their pilots. 

Murray says on one recent day, he even saw the reassignment rate at 85 percent. To solve the woes, scheduling needs to be more efficient in addition to hiring and training more pilots.

For their part, Southwest representatives note the airline has had one of the lowest cancellation rates among carriers since the beginning of May and have hired more than 14,500 employees in the last 12 months. “We respect the rights of our employees to express their opinions,” an airline spokesperson says. “For 51 years, we’ve maintained a Southwest culture that honors our valued employees.”

But it's not just Southwest's pilots who are burning out. Over at Delta, where there are nearly 14,000 pilots, the inefficiencies have had such an impact that pilots are raising flags in a different way: They issued an open letter to customers on June 16, stating that at the current rate of overtime hours they're flying, they’ll fly more overtime in 2022 by the fall than they did in 2018 and 2019 combined. But they also promised to always “prioritize safety—every day and on every flight.”

One goal of the letter was to commiserate with passengers. “We just wanted to get our thoughts out to our customers, and let them know that we share in their frustration,” says Evan Baach, a 767 captain speaking on behalf of Delta’s chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. Like Southwest, the root of the problem also has to do with scheduling and staffing issues, according to Baach. “For things to go smoothly, there needs to be a nice even match between the number of flights that the company wants to fly, the number of pilots that are available, and then a buffer in there in case there are weather issues and so forth,” Baach says. “When any one of those things gets out of whack, you start to see operational issues and delays.”

While pilots never go over the FAA-regulated maximum number of work hours, they have been working voluntary overtime. More pilots would surely help build back the buffer needed, but ultimately, according to Baach, the main issue is Delta promising more flights than it can handle.

The recent slashing of 100 daily summer flights from the schedule from July 1 through August 7 is meant to help tighten up those inefficiencies, though the results remain to be seen.

Delta pilots are continuing to voice their thoughts by planning an informational picket on Thursday at seven airports around the country, including New York's JFK and Los Angeles, but says those picketing will be off-duty pilots, so it will not affect operations. (A Delta representative could not be reached for comment on the demonstrations.)

United Airlines made headway on Friday when a new two-year deal was reached between the pilots' union and airline. On top of three pay rate increases totaling more than 14.5 percent within 18 months retroactive to the beginning of the year, it also includes improvements to reserve scheduling and overtime compensation, as well as “improved trip construction parameters to combat pilot fatigue” and “new quality of life improvements to provide increased pilot schedule flexibility.”

Captain Greg Everhard with United's division of the Air Line Pilots Association says: “We believe the work rule changes will improve schedules for our pilots and reduce fatigue.” 

In response, United CEO Scott Kirby said in a LinkedIn post the company is “pleased” to have reached the agreement and “be the only large airline in the U.S. to do so.” 

Though there are some steps in the right direction, the push and pull between pilots and airlines continues, and it may take a while to see tangible change at the airports. “I would advise our customers to add some buffer and wiggle room into their schedules,” Baach says. “Lines are long everywhere, so give yourself some extra time—and just continue to just understand that Delta pilots understand and share [your] frustration if your flight is canceled or delayed.”