Complaints about airlines were so numerous in 2023 that the Transportation Department couldn’t even count all the grievances it received for several months. Seriously.
“It is increasingly clear that consumer complaints aren’t returning to prepandemic levels,’’ the DOT understated in its Air Travel Consumer Report issued in October. Not even close, in fact. In the first five months of the year, complaints totaled 38,135, a 68% increase compared with the same period of 2022, and 584% above the similar period in 2019.
Millions returned to the skies, and millions went nowhere fast. From a Christmas ruined for many by a Southwest Airlines meltdown, to a summer of delays and cancellations—especially with a one-two punch of severe storms and an even more-severe shortage of air-traffic controllers in New York—air travel suffered in 2023.
Don’t count on it getting much better in 2024. Though airlines improved their reliability in the second half of 2023, and vowed they were better-prepared for the holiday surge with more postpandemic hiring and investment in equipment and better technology, structural problems haven’t been solved. Shortages of air-traffic controllers, airplanes and pilots all add up to one conclusion: Travelers likely be facing higher fares along with more delay, cancellations and disruption.
There are also safety concerns, particularly with air-traffic controllers who are working mandatory overtime and suffering from fatigue. A series of near-collisions on runways has prompted continuing safety reviews.
The system is “showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore,” National Safety Transportation Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy told a Senate hearing in November.
To get an idea of the problem, consider this: The number of certified professional air-traffic controllers in the U.S. declined 10% in the decade between 2012 and 2022, according to the DOT’s inspector general, while the number of flights the Federal Aviation Administration handled increased 1.4%.
The two main facilities that handle airplanes in the air over New York before they get to airports and after they take off are supposed to have 66 supervisors combined. But New York Center and New York Terminal Radar Approach Control actually have only 20, according to a June inspector general’s report. More broadly, 20 of the 26 most-critical FAA facilities are staffed below 85% of full capacity.
“FAA continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations,’’ the inspector general’s sobering report said.
At the Senate hearing in November, the FAA said it is working to hire, train and certify controllers, and that staffing, while still challenged, has improved at some facilities since the inspector general’s report.
The FAA ordered airlines to thin out flight schedules to and from New York in 2023 and into 2024 because of controller staffing shortages. The lack of controllers most affects travelers when bad weather hits. Blocks of airspace may be shut down, limiting the ability of pilots to reroute around storms, and arrival and departure rates often need to be reduced. The result: Airplanes sit on the ground and wait, or flights get canceled.
A lack of funding
Steve Dickson, the former head of the FAA who resigned in 2022, says skimpy and unpredictable government funding has limited the ability of the FAA to modernize equipment that could increase capacity, improve safety and help controllers. He thinks it will get “more challenging’’ before it improves.
Dickson points to President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which had only $25 billion—2.5% of the total—for aviation. And, he says, $20 billion of that was for airport terminal projects that don’t address congestion in the skies, while $5 billion was targeted to replace old control towers.
“There was no modernization money in there at all,’’ Dickson said recently on the podcast “Airlines Confidential,’’ which I co-host with former Spirit Airlines chief executive Ben Baldanza.
“The difficult proposition that the aviation system and the FAA face is that roads and railroads and even airports are things that the public can see. They are tangible,’’ Dickson said. “What happens in the skies…is what has been getting short shrift over the past few years and that’s where the emphasis needs to be placed.’’
Despite the structural problems and forced schedule cuts, travelers keep coming. Demand for international trips surged in summer 2023, and airline chief executives predict continued hunger for trips in 2024 even with economic uncertainty for consumers.
“Look, it’s a rocky time,’’ American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said of the economy recently on CNBC. And yet, he added, “People want to connect. People want to travel. And so, as I take a look out to 2024, I see robust demand.’’
Demand is likely to grow faster than airline capacity, and that’s a formula for higher fares in 2024. One major factor is that airlines can’t get all the airplanes they want.
Boeing has suffered a slowdown in deliveries of both the 737 narrow-body model and the 787 wide-body jet because of quality issues and FAA certification delays. The 737 MAX 7, originally scheduled to start flying for airlines in 2022, now is projected to start deliveries in 2024. A larger version of the 737, called the MAX 10, also hasn’t yet been certified by the FAA and likely won’t start deliveries before 2025 at the earliest. Such delays have forced airlines to pull flights from schedules.
Another big problem for airlines: Engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of RTX, discovered that microscopic contaminants had gotten into batches of a powdered metal used in key engine parts, possibly leading to cracks. Engines have to be removed from planes and inspected. If microcracks are found, engines have to be disassembled and then reassembled with new high-pressure turbine disks.
The repairs have forced the grounding of hundreds of planes worldwide and delayed deliveries of new planes. The number of planes on the ground because of the Pratt issues is expected to peak next year at around 600-650 jets, Pratt said in September.
Filling the cockpit
The shortage of pilots continues to force smaller regional airlines to ground airplanes and cancel service. The Regional Airline Association says 500 regional aircraft—small jets with fewer than 100 seats—are parked and others underused for lack of crews.
Rising pilot salaries and faster career paths to big airplanes are attracting more student pilots, consulting firm Oliver Wyman says, and the severity of the pilot shortage is being reduced. Still, Oliver Wyman predicts it will take several years to ease the shortage, and that the biggest gap for pilots between supply and demand won’t peak until 2026.
The coming year also brings unknowns for airlines, such as whether JetBlue will acquire Spirit Airlines. The Justice Department has sued to block the merger, arguing that JetBlue will remove a lot of low-fare seats and consumers will suffer. JetBlue argues it has plenty of low fares—so low it has been losing money—and with Spirit’s planes, pilots and established service in the middle of the country, it will be able to better compete against the Big 4 airlines that carry 80% of all U.S. passenger traffic: American, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest.
Perhaps the clearest indication of how bad 2023 was for fliers, the Transportation Department said during the summer that there were so many complaints that it had to stop publishing monthly complaint totals because it couldn’t get them all counted. In October, the department said it was processing the high volume, but wasn’t sure when it could resume publishing data.
Scott McCartney formerly wrote the Middle Seat column for The Wall Street Journal. He is now an adjunct professor at Duke University, podcaster and aviation consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.