JetBlue, Alaska trims schedules as airlines try a smoother summer

Airlines are adding staff and reducing the number of aircraft in an effort to avoid upheavals as both customer demand and labor shortages continue.

JetBlue Airways Corp. said this weekend it would reduce flights in May and all summer due to staff restrictions, after canceling more than 300 flights over the weekend. Alaska Air Group Inc. said last week that it would trim the spring flight to catch up with the pilot training. Meanwhile, other airlines, including American Airlines Group Inc., say they are prepared for the summer rise after a month-long hiring round.

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Airlines say they are taking the experience from last summer seriously, where operations were strained due to the booming demand. With a thin crew, many airlines were unable to recover quickly from what should have been routine disruptions, such as bad weather. Travelers faced cancellations, delays and hour-long waits for customer service by phone.

“We are very focused on maintaining our resilience,” said David Seymour, Chief Operating Officer of American. “We do not fail our guard.”

An American Airlines plane was spotted at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York City on December 26, 2021. (Reuters / Jeenah Moon / Reuters Photos)

American said earlier that it planned to hire about 180 pilots a month this year, and Mr. Seymour says the schedule is on track, with more than 600 employees until the end of March. His team has gone into supply chains to ensure that problems such as catering shortages do not disrupt flights and lead to delays.

“Two years ago, three years ago, I’m not sure it would ever show up at the COO level because you just took it for granted,” he said. “I have teams dedicated to looking at everything. I mean, from stirrers to napkins, to pillows and blankets to headsets.”

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It says airline executives bookings exceed expectations, despite sky-high fuel costs pushing ticket prices higher. Summer plans have not been completed and are still fluctuating, but US airlines are currently planning to fly about 16% more seats than last summer, according to data from Cirium.

“The operating crew will be on a razor blade,” said Tim Donohue, co-founder of Aerology, a startup working on predicting flight outages. “The razor barely works when things go as planned.”

O'Hare Airport Chicago

Travelers line up at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on December 30, 2021. (AP Photo / Nam Y. Huh / AP Newsroom)

COVID-19 still threatens big. Earlier this year, airlines canceled thousands of flights as omicron infections tore through their workforce. Airlines in the UK have been hit by a similar wave of infections this month, forcing flight cancellations. It could happen again if US cases rise again.

Airlines say they have spent months hiring staff, including pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, ramp workers and customer service representatives.

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Spring break travel has provided the first testing of industry preparednessand there have been some signs of strain.

This weekend, JetBlue canceled 18% of its flights on Saturday and 13% on Sunday. The airline said it was trying to get its operations back on track after bad weather last week and to be proactive.

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Despite hiring more than 3,000 new crew members this year, JetBlue is still understaffed in some areas, it says. The airline expects a record number of passengers this summer, but the timetable it set months ago to meet that demand is proving to be too ambitious, President Joanna Geraghty wrote in a note to staff.

JetBlue plans to reduce flights by 8% to 10% in May and with similar levels through the summer, Ms Geraghty wrote.

Passengers aboard JetBlue Airways Corp.’s opening flight to London Heathrow Airport from JFK New York Airport on August 11, 2021. (Stephanie Keith / Bloomberg via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“Based on your feedback that the schedule is too tight, we know the best plan is to reduce capacity now,” she wrote.

Severe storms that lingered over Florida earlier this month, prompting airspace restrictions, also changed the airline’s operations. While most airlines were back on schedule within a few days, some struggled to get on track. Trade unions said the stewardesses faced hour-long waits to find transportation and hotels.

Some flight attendants were forced to sleep at airports, said unions representing flight attendants in American and Southwest.

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In a letter to top executives in Southwest, Lyn Montgomery, president of the union representing Southwest’s flight attendants, wrote this past week: “The current work environment is not just unstable, but chaotic.”

A Southwest spokeswoman said the accident was due to fully booked hotels in Florida where crews were stuck and that it was working to improve contingency planning.

A US spokeswoman said the airline was aware of the problem and has been working to improve it.

American Airlines O'Hare Chicago

American Airlines flight attendants arrive at work at O’Hare Airport on July 2, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images / Getty Images)

In an effort to ensure that it has enough flight attendants working, JetBlue is offering a $ 1,000 bonus to flight attendants who do not call without work until May 31, and an additional $ 100 per day. travel to flight attendants who pick up open tours on holidays, according to a note to the crew.

Southwest raised the starting salary to at least $ 17 an hour and no longer requires most airport workers to have a high school. About 15% to 20% of new hires do not show up on their first day for some roles, said Greg Muccio, the airline’s senior director of talent acquisition. “We were a little shocked by that. We just had to adjust,” he said.

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The airline says it expects to be able to hire enough workers to fly its June plan.

Pilots at Alaska, Delta Air Lines Inc. and American have all marked themselves in recent weeks, complaining that airlines have built up schedules with small margin of error, leaving pilots overloaded and tired.

“We are constantly evaluating our manning models and planning ahead so we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise,” a Delta spokesman said.

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The competition for pilots among airlines has been fierce. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, the union that represents Southwest pilots, said in some recent newly hired classes that about 10% of pilots have resigned. In one class, 27% went back. The union, which represents pilots in Alaska Air, said it has experienced record levels of attrition.

Southwest Airlines Baltimore Thurgood Marshall Airport

A Southwest Airlines flight taxis at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 11, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images / Getty Images)

Alaska blamed a shortage of staff for cancellations of about 10% of its flights last weekend.

The airline said Thursday it would reduce its flight by about 2% by the end of June. Alaska said it had 63 fewer pilots ready to fly in April than it had planned in January when it set its schedule.

Pilot training has also become a bottleneck, as airlines do not always have enough flight instructors or simulators to handle the massive influx. Southwest has had to cut back on its plans to hire first officers as it works to recruit more flight instructors. Alaska said it has dedicated a team to making sure it follows pilot training and does not let the schedule get out of sync with the number of pilots it has.

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“The choking point has been to get everyone trained as we have screwed up the airline again and returned aircraft for service during the entire pandemic,” Spirit Airlines Inc. CEO Ted Christie said at an industry meeting. “We’ll get there.”

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