Return To U.S. Airline Reliability Requires All Stakeholders’ Action

Business

In June, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg came down hard on the U.S. airlines for what has admittedly been a rough 12 months for operational reliability. The goal was draw a line in the sand and try to help this summer work out better for all. This summer had its challenges for the U.S. airline industry but it was better that the prior 12 months. This was mostly due to the carriers cutting back their schedule and forgoing flights that likely would have been profitable given the strong summer travel demand.

It would be nice if it were so easy just to pound the table and demand better results, then get them. Complex problems often have complex answers, and airline reliability is one of those. Rather than assume one group, the airlines operating in the U.S., can fix the operational challenges on their own, a more practical solution requires many more stakeholders’ involvement:

Airlines Do Make A Difference

As the early schedule cutback this summer showed, airlines can of course affect their own reliability. On its own, this is an expensive and not totally effective strategy. Cutting flights during high demand periods raises fares for consumers. Also, slot regulations at New York and Washington, D.C. area airports have “use it or lose it” provisions that make it tough to cut back from these contested areas.

The biggest way airlines can help this challenge is to better coordinate the marketing schedule with the operational realities. Every airline does this to some extent, and airline have gotten better it. But still, airlines have been surprised by lack of staff in some cases, or limited flexibility when things start to go off track. This suggests that more can be done here, since operators often have a fairly clear idea of when a planned schedule is not going to make it. Airlines build their budgets based on planned schedules, as while the schedule drives the top line, it defines many of the companies’ costs as well. Often these budgets become the basis for projections, and so cutting back flights originally planned often creates investor anxiety along with consumer frustration.

Air Traffic Control Has a Big Role To Play

Aircraft move through commercial air space in a positively-controlled, well-structured environment. When Air Traffic Control (ATC) imposes a ground stop, further separation, or en route holds, these directives are always aimed at good ideas given the weather, congestion, or other issues being addressed. But the result is often airline delays and the passengers don’t see the cause in these cases. No truly sustainable reliability improvement will happen until airlines and ATC are singing from the same hymn book.

Worker shortages have affected both airlines and ATC, and each has things to fix in this arena. It’s not a blame thing, even though some airlines have tried to do just that. It’s a recognition that airplanes can’t go anywhere or move any faster than ATC allows. Working together is the only solution, and for the DOT Secretary to call in only the airlines when ATC is under DOT control (via the FAA) smacks of political gamesmanship over real solutions.

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Going to the prior solution, airline schedules that are not realistic to the ATC environment is no different than if the airline’s own operators are too stretched. In the meantime, airlines fight by padding block time more, meaning the time they say it takes to get from A to B. This gives them more slack to recover when things go south, but also increases pilot and flight attendant pay and reduces the number of flights a plane can make in a 24-hour period. So in the end, consumers pay with fewer flights and higher fares compared to a world where all stakeholders sat down to figure out the best solutions.

Unions Must Join The Fight

The last year or so has put a spotlight on labor issue in many businesses. In the airline business, this was further complicated by airlines allowing early retirement for senior employees just after the pandemic hit. Demand return at this point was completely unknown so, at the time, this seemed like a prudent step. The relatively quick return, especially for leisure traffic, has left many airlines scrambling for employees and has given unions new leverage at the bargaining table.

There is no problem with unions flexing their muscle to win some new contract improvements given the current conditions. But working with management, helping to get the industry back into a reliable state, is in everyone’s interest. This could mean temporary flexibility in crew scheduling, or more than the usual ability to pick up time when it is available. No one is suggesting not getting paid for this, but matching flights with available crews has become especially challenging for many airlines. What better time to show just how valuable and necessary these crew members are?

Airports Can Help

In Europe, airports have taken drastic actions to improve reliability given a shortfall in workers. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has limited flights and even suggested that passengers don’t check bags when connecting. London’s Heathrow airport has taken similar steps. In the U.S., the airports are run by government agencies and have more of a public service mentality to stay open and handle all flights willing to be scheduled.

Airports can help get the industry reliable again, and deserve a seat at the table figuring out how to do this holistically. This includes both on the air side and the ground side of their operation. On the airside, this could mean ensuring ground control staffing and training is complete and traffic flow is well managed. On the ground side, it could be as simple as better signage and ways for passengers to self service. Since every flight starts and ends at an airport, it’s easy to see how this important piece of existing infrastructure is required for ultimate reliability.

Technology And Infrastructure Are Needed

Many have been pushing for “next generation” air traffic control systems and controls. Experts like the ATH Group have continually focused on better ways to manage the air system and ways to create more flights in constrained airspace. While this will take longer than other things on this list, ultimately a better system that routes airplanes, separates airplanes, and manages the thousands of daily flights in and around a lot of constrained airspace more efficiently is necessary.

Airplanes have gotten smarter and many airlines use predictive maintenance systems to reduce the instances of unplanned maintenance delays. Similarly, the ATC system itself must be more predictive and more quickly proactive, as doing everything right with today’s system is still like trying to win a horse race with a 300-pound jockey.


There are many stakeholders in making the nations air traffic more reliable for customers and employees. While airlines get the brunt of the complaints since they deal directly with the delayed or cancelled customer, airlines alone can’t fix this. When everyone works together to solve a common problem, things get fixed. This is what every airline passenger, every airline leader, and the Secretary of the DOT should encourage.

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