Two years ago there were strong concerns that it could take two to five years for the air travel industry to resemble its operation in 2019, prior to the Corona pandemic, mainly in terms of volume of passengers and scale of aircraft fleet in use. It was predicted that resumption of air passenger travel as the pandemic recedes would be gradual, from both sides of passengers (i.e., increased willingness to fly again) and airlines (e.g., adding destinations step-by-step). The resumption of air travel turned out to happen differently — it was not quite ‘gradual’, more like a flood in a matter of a few months (from early 2022). A determining factor that seems to have made the difference is how soon or quickly COVID-19 restrictions and requirements were largely lifted in most regions (East Asia remains an exception).

On the bright side, the volumes of travel traffic of air passengers, especially on international routes, are approaching the level of 2019, and they are considerably higher than last year. However, it can hardly be said that air passenger travel resembles an orderly form of operation as before the pandemic, which was not expected. It was not anticipated in the industry — including airlines, airports, and supporting travel authorities [e.g., passport issuing and border controls] — how eager many consumers-passengers would be to take flights again on vacations. Therefore, the problem has become not of airplanes returning slowly into flight schedules, but of providing enough aircraft with air-crews quickly to satisfy the surge in demand. The air travel industry is stumbling, struggling to cope with this situation. Hence, we have a blessed recovery mixed with annoying disruption.

Total traffic of air travel in April 2022, measured by IATA in revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs), rose 78.7% above April of last year (2021). In international air travel, the focus of this post, international RPKs were 332% higher than in April of 2021 (March 2022 year-on-year increase was 290%)(International Air Transport Association [IATA], Press Release 25, 9 June 2022). These are statistics of just two months of early spring, but they signal the change taking place this year in air traffic, since relief from COVID-19 restrictions came during winter in January-February. As everyone can see, the pressure on airlines and airports has been dramatically increasing in the following months towards summer (May to July).

We should note that overall international RPKs in April 2022 are still 43.4% lower than in April 2019. Yet, recovery of air traffic is in progress relative to the pre-pandemic period, and is experienced especially in Europe. Also, traffic levels in some routes are particularly higher than in 2019: Europe-Central America, Middle East-North America, and North America-Central America. The growth of RPKs in European airlines (based on region of registration of airlines) is the strongest, 480% year-on-year (March 434% Y-on-Y), much more than in North American airlines (228%-230% for same months). The international RPKs of Europe-based airlines in April 2022 are still 25.8% lower than in April 2019, and 24.7% lower for North American airlines, but their RPKs are getting closer to the 2019 reference level than in other regions (IATA’s Air Passenger Market Analysis report April 2022, accessible from the press release).

The surge in passenger demand for international air travel has met airports and airlines unprepared. That condition is attributed primarily to acute shortages of staff, in the air (e.g., pilots) and on the ground (e.g., check-in, luggage handling). Shortage in pilots, especially in the US, is created due to thousands of pilots leaving early for retirement during the Coronavirus pandemic; it is not possible to train and assign new aviators as fast as airlines need them now (Bloomberg, Mary Schlangenstein, 27 May 2022). Shortage is also felt in air cabin crews. On the ground, many airports’ and airlines’ employees were laid-off or decided to quit while the freezing of air travel due to the pandemic continued.

It is claimed that airlines as well as airports too often have ‘released’ employees needed for ground services instead of keeping them on furlough, and that is although airlines (e.g., British Airways) received government financial support to help them hold on through the crisis (Bloomberg, on travel chaos in Europe, 1 July 2022). One cannot be sure for how long these employees could be kept waiting for resumption of activity; now many are reluctant to return (mainly because of unfavourable pay and working conditions), and it is difficult to recruit new employees soon enough (e.g., security checks forestall hiring). Airport administrators estimate it could take up to a year (i.e., till next spring) to close the gap. The IATA charges on its part that governments contributed to the current disruption: “With governments making U-turns and policy changes there was uncertainty until the last minute, leaving little time to restart an industry that was largely dormant for two years” (IATA press release 25).

The disruption in air travel is manifest in delays and cancellations of flights. But moreover, disruption to a degree of chaos is experienced by travelling passengers at airports before departing on their flights as well as after landing on arrival to their destinations (final and intermediate, that is when changing for connecting flights). First, the processes passengers go through at the airports on departure and arrival are key parts of their travel journey experience. Second, flight delays may cause as much trouble and dismay to passengers as cancellations — delays are much more frequent and they can interrupt and spoil travel journeys quite badly (e.g., arriving at a hotel late at night, losing half a day or more of the vacation or business trip, missing a connecting flight).

  • Figures provided in the text below on flight delays and cancellations are based on online flight tracking information by FlightAware.com. The figures relate to prior day-‘Yesterday’ statistics, domestic + international, representing ‘airline-days’ (n1=256) and ‘airport-days’ (n2=228), from mid-June to Mid-July (2022). (In total, flight delays during this period fluctuated in a range of 20K ± 5K a day worldwide, and there were roughly 2,000-3,000 flights cancelled a day.)

Flight cancellations receive much attention because of their detrimental impact on passenger travel plans. However, cancellation percentage rates across airlines and days remain mostly in the low single-digit range. When flights are cancelled, on nearly half the airline-days reviewed cancellation rates were marginal below 2% (many cases below 1% and fewer than 10 flights can be described as ‘negligible’). The less marginal rates, which can already be considered disturbing, are mostly of 2%-4%. There were cases of airline-days, however, where cancellation rates reached 6%-10%. Yet, rates of 2% and higher in larger airlines (e.g., American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest, Lufthansa, KLM, British Airways) may already imply dozens of flights cancelled for the day. Hence the impact on passengers’ journeys can be stronger than the rates suggest. Even more critical is the impact on experiences of individual (and family) passengers when cancellations are announced. The trouble is even greater when passengers are too often informed with only a short notice of a few hours to extreme cases of having the flight cancelled in the last minute (e.g., as in this story: Travel disruption: ‘We were on the plane when our flight was cancelled’ – BBC News, 28 May 2022). But there are bad enough stories of families with children being told while waiting in the terminal for hours that their flight to a long sought vacation is cancelled.

Airlines with some particularly bad record days may be noticed. For example, on 20th June Brussels Airlines had 22% of its flights, amounting to 45 flights, being cancelled. Among low cost airlines, Eurowings had an average cancellation rate close to 7% (e.g., on 22nd June 12% or 68 flights). On worse days, KLM exhibited an 8% cancellation rate (18th June, 56 flights), or British Airways that cancelled 10% of its flights (30th June, 72 flights). El-Al (Israel) registered an average rate of 6% (5-9 daily flights cancelled) that is attributed to a protest action of its pilots over their wages, and also regarding too dense flight scheduling that did not leave them enough time to rest — they declared ‘sick leave’ on short notice and thus forced the cancellation of flights — this partial strike ended in early July with a new agreement. A more severe case is the pilots’ strike at SAS (Scandinavia), followed by filing for bankruptcy (in the US) in early July — since then up to 75% of SAS flights are being cancelled daily. Among the airline-days reviewed, the average cancellation rate stands at 2.7 % (excluding SAS, European airlines 3.1%, North American airlines 2%, low cost airlines 3.1% {with SAS the total rate reaches 4.3%}).

When observing daily percentage rates of flight delays, it is found that they vary widely from 15% to 65% across airlines and days, though they more frequently occur between 25% and 45% of the flights airlines have scheduled for those days. Among airline-days reviewed, the total average rate of flight delays makes a third of the flights (33%), higher among European airlines (nearly 40%) than among North American, Australian or low cost airlines (26%-32%). Air Canada, however, seems to be inflicted by higher rates of delays (~60%) than US-based airlines (~18%-24% on average). Some European airlines were found to be more susceptible to delays, with average rates hovering around 40%-45% (e.g., Air France, Brussels Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines). Among low cost airlines, easyJet appears to have a greater problem with delays (42%) than cancellations (~1%, but also see this BBC report from 5 June 2022 on 80 flights cancelled); protests of pilots and cabin crews in Ryanair may have greater effect in causing delays (32%) than cancelling flights (<1% on average, though on 30th June, and on 2nd & 15th July Ryanair recorded about 30 flights cancelled each day, ~1% of flights).

While reviewing the statistics on frequency of flight delays, the definition of ‘delay’ remains unclear. In particular, no indication could be found if any minimum threshold for duration of flight delay is used to count the flight as in delay. It appears that the air travel industry is vague on this issue. Realistically, delays of half an hour have become rather common for several years, already before the pandemic crisis (e.g., take-offs delayed due to air traffic congestion). In following live updates of an international airport online, delays of half an hour to an hour were very common, but there were also frequent delays of two to four hours; the airport did not seem to declare these flights as ‘in delay’. Delays of six hours and longer are more rare, and are more likely to be declared as ‘delayed’ on the online ‘flight board’. The issue surfaces, for instance, when passengers claim compensation for damages from delays — airlines in the US are required to compensate for ‘significant delays’ but what ‘significant’ means is not agreed, left up to the airlines to decide (USA TODAY, 19 June 2022),

Nonetheless, flight cancellations and delays are not decided solely by airlines — they can be strongly influenced by the operational capacity and management of airports. For example, flights are delayed because passengers remain ‘stuck’ in long lines in the midst of the check-in process (airport and airline teams are involved in the security screening, issuing boarding cards, and luggage handling). Therefore, it is necessary to look also at the respective figures of airports.

  • The total average cancellation rate across airports and days reviewed is 3.6% (Europe 3.7%, North America 3.4%, Oceania + Japan 3.7%). Airports in Scandinavia are revealed as main contributors to the cancellation rate of flights in Europe (primarily Oslo Gardermoen at 16%, but also Stockholm Arlanda and Copenhagen at ~6% on average) — this is probably linked with the troubles of SAS. Yet, other European airports also seem inflicted with having more flights cancelled, such as in Brussels (7% on average, 20% or 65 flights on 20th June). In North America the airports of New-York LaGuardia and Toronto Pearson exhibit relatively higher cancellation rates (~5%, LaGuardia saw 137 or 23% of its flights cancelled on 22nd June).
  • The daily percentage rates of flight delays across airports and days vary mostly between 30% and 40% (total average rate 32%). Delays are more frequent in Canadian airports reviewed (Montreal Trudeau 41% and Toronto Pearson 47%) rather than in the American (US) airports reviewed (17%-28%, e.g., New-York JFK or Chicago O’Hare); this result corresponds with a delay problem at Air Canada. The load pressure on airports in Europe is cued through more frequent delays in large international airports (e.g., Frankfurt Int’l 43%, London Heathrow 41%, Istanbul 45%, Paris Charles de Gaulle 44%, Munich Int’l 42%, Amsterdam Schiphol 35% and Milano Malpensa 34%).

The loads on some airports are particularly heavy. Some are international airports that serve as ‘hubs’ for connections on long-range flight routes (e.g., Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt Int’l, London Heathrow), others are smaller but central for low cost airlines (e.g., London Gatwick). Airports started in June to impose caps on outgoing flights during the summer (e.g., Schiphol is imposing a cap which is expected to lead to a fall of 16% in planned flights)(BBC News Business, 21 June 2022). Earlier, the UK aviation authority had already urged airlines to plan cancellations enough in advance to avoid ‘axing’ flights by short notice, which is especially distressing for passengers, and ensure that flight timetables for the summer are ‘deliverable’ (BBC News Business, 14 June 2022, since then London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports also declared their intentions to impose caps).

The situation in various airports can have several expressions: (1) Scenes of passengers waiting in long queues for check-in in departure terminals (before receiving boarding cards) have become commonplace — occasionally lines may extend outside terminal buildings. Passengers tell the media of arriving 3-6 hours before the planned take-off time of their flights. (2) Disarray in handling travel luggage has become a specially acute problem. Airport staff are unable to upload all luggage to the assigned flights in time. Therefore, there are scenes of luggage items sitting idle in terminals, in particular ‘pools’ of luggage piling up that arrive too late to the baggage claim areas, missing the passengers to collect them. Thus, many luggage items get lost, or get returned late to the owners, days after landing (which is worse if one is away from home than if one is back home). Difficulties with handling luggage that consequently pileup led Heathrow Airport, for example, to cancel flights (BBC News Business, 21 June 2022). (3) Abrupt flight cancellations cause misery to passengers with connecting flights, mainly in Europe from/to the US (e.g., stranded, re-routed)(Bloomberg, 1 July 2022). But delays can also be critical regarding luggage for passengers changing between connecting flights, if not enough time (less than an hour) is left at the intermediate airport between the two ‘legs’ of their journey for transferring their luggage between airplanes. A number of such factors converged, as suggested in Bloomberg, to inflict maximum pain especially on passengers in Europe — long lines, arriving hours earlier to the airport, travel disruptions on-route, and pursuits for missing luggage — completely opposite to having a relaxing vacation.

  • A number of recommendations are given to passengers lately: They are advised to allow a few hours in between connecting flights when planning their itinerary. Passengers are also encouraged to check-in online the day before a flight, and to travel ‘light’ with just small trolley suitcases.

It has become essential for the air travel industry to resolve soon the causes of disruption, creating distress for passengers. It is possible that continued increases of flight airfares (due to the surge in demand as well as increase in price of fuel for airplanes on the cost side) will slow down the flow of air passengers before those issues are resolved and fixed. But it is not suggested to wait for this development somehow to ease the situation in airports; the disruption during recovery artificially aggravates a demand surplus because it leads to reducing capacity (cancelling flights, offering fewer available seats on flights) when demand is actually growing. There is importance to how travel journeys are experienced by passengers — making them tolerable (as before the pandemic), and possibly pleasant up to jubilating. Hopefully this aspiration can be achieved within a few months.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.