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Lingering airline crew shortages, surging demand threaten fall and winter travel seasons

Shortages of pilots, flight attendants and gate agents threaten to unravel fall and winter travel plans in the U.S., after a turbulent summer, airline unions say. There’s been a surge in fliers, according to the aviation industry, since COVID-19 concerns continue to subside.

The unions spoke at a CBS News travel summit in Washington Tuesday.

Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, says recruitment failures and pandemic-era furloughs have hamstrung airlines.

“Airlines — including American Airlines — are still suffering from this mismanagement,” Tajer said. “There is so much uncertainty in the fall and winter schedule, that we cannot be silent.”

This month, pilots picketed at airports across the country, threatening to strike if airlines don’t approve better contracts for them and fix operational issues that have led to delays and cancellations.

Flight attendants say they are also stretched too thin.

“Staffing is at its lowest level across the board,” says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
JetBlue is among the airlines that faced backlash earlier this year after cancelling hundreds of flights because of staffing shortages.

JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes also blamed a different factor — restrictions that have arisen due to Florida rocket launches in crowded nearby airspace.

“We created this kind of dynamic where the system couldn’t handle the number of flights,” Hayes says.

JetBlue has also trimmed routes into 2023 to “ensure operational reliability,” as it pursues a merger with low-cost airline Spirit.

But Airlines for America head Nick Calio blames more “inexperienced travelers” for some disruptions, while saying the industry remains resilient.

“People want to go places, they’re getting to places,” Calio says.

On Labor Day weekend, the TSA says it screened nearly 8.8 million passengers, surpassing pre-pandemic 2019 levels as demand continues to rise.

In August, the Transportation Department said summer data showed complaints were up 270% above pre-pandemic levels.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a letter to airlines, called on them to improve their customer service plans as the Biden administration pushes an online “dashboard” to help fliers navigate airline policies for travel disruptions.