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The airlines must be held accountable

Date: November 4, 2021

By The Charlotte Observer - Opinion Page

Unruly passengers objecting to masking rules and other restrictions aren’t the only ones disrupting flights — misbehaving airlines are also causing travel chaos.

And they, too, ought to face consequences.

Tens of thousands of passengers had their plans upended when American Airlines suddenly canceled about 1,900 flights over the weekend and another 250 on Monday.

American Airlines blamed the cancellations on windy conditions at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and staff shortages. The wind was a factor, but its overall effect was, well, overblown. The real problem is a staffing shortage, and that’s the airline’s fault.

Robert Mann, a former airline executive and now an independent airline industry analyst based in Port Washington, N.Y., said the cancellations were brought on by an industry practice of allocating staff duty time on a monthly basis. At the end of October, weather conditions in Dallas exposed a lack of staffing availability and, Mann said “that cascaded across the weekend and into (Monday) morning.” That may explain the cancellations, but Mann said, “From a customer’s perspective, there really is no excuse for it.”

The weekend’s mass cancellations are the latest scheduling snarl that has disrupted travel plans this year. Southwest Airlines had a similar problem in June when it dropped more than 2,600 flights and again two weeks ago, when it was forced to cancel more than 2,000 flights. Spirit Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights between July 30 and Aug. 9.

A canceled flight is often more than an inconvenience. Some stranded passengers miss one-time only events such as graduations, weddings, funerals, birthdays and homecomings.

The airlines say the disruptions reflect difficulties in ramping up staffing to meet a surge in demand as vaccines made flying a safer option. But a staffing shortage isn’t supposed to have occurred. Taxpayers provided more than $50 billion in relief funds to ensure the airline industry would not cut jobs during virus shutdowns. Instead, some airlines let their staffing shrink, leaving them flatfooted as the arrival of vaccines rapidly revived air travel.

“They had one job to do and that was to make sure that their staffing remained full,” said William McGee, aviation adviser for Consumer Reports Advocacy.

Instead, they offered early retirements and buyouts and imposed furloughs and layoffs.

These COVID-related hassles come on top of irritations about airlines imposing multiple fees, overbooking and shrinking seat sizes.

Today’s commercial flying conditions are not what Congress and former President Jimmy Carter had in mind when the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 became law. The idea was a worthwhile and successful one. It got the federal government out of regulating fares, routes and how new airlines enter the market.

But advocates of the law also thought it would spur competition among airlines that would in turn cut prices and improve service. Instead there was a wave of mergers.

Now these near monopolies seem impervious to consumer complaints and the nation’s need for affordable and predictable air service. It’s time for Congress to look again at how to make the airline industry more responsive to the public its airlines are certified to serve.

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