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Congress looks to treat air travel headaches

A pilot shortage strains the aviation industry

Passengers wait at the Newark, N.J., Liberty International Airport Associated Press/Photo by Stefan Jeremiah

Congress looks to treat air travel headaches

Pierluigi Mancini flies almost exclusively with Delta Air Lines. Part of his travel is recreational; most of it is business. Increasingly, it’s delayed.

“Somewhere around April or May, I started to notice flight delays. … I never really worry about it. I really trust Delta—I never get upset when it’s weather delays,” Mancini said while waiting in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “But this frequency, I just haven’t experienced this in many, many years.”

Sometimes a flight is delayed by 20 minutes, which becomes 45 minutes. Then, occasionally, it becomes two, three, four hours.

The problem for Mancini—and for the millions of other Americans who travel by air—is that delayed flights aren’t just a Delta hazard. A worsening pilot shortage has become an industry-wide headache, forcing airlines to stretch available manpower. And now that it’s time to pass the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, the issue has caught Congress’ attention, too.

The act extends the operations of the Federal Aviation Administration as a subpart of the Department of Transportation. It gives Congress a chance to make overarching corrective changes to the aviation industry’s standards. Before the previous authorization expires on Sept. 30, Congress must decide how to address airline challenges in the next five years before the act again comes up for renewal.

Congress has a vested interest in maintaining U.S. airways. As is the case with other economic powerhouses like China, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan, air travel accounts for a sizable portion of the country’s gross domestic product—4.9 percent in 2019. Since the 1946 Federal Airport Act, Congress has helped keep up the maintenance of America’s airports, considering them critical infrastructure similar to highways. Since then, Congress has played a snowballing role in the regulation and oversight of the industry.

The last time Congress considered the measure, drones, air traffic control, and space transportation topped its list of priorities. This version focuses heavily on American aviation readiness and performance.

According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the number of on-time flights dropped from about 80.6 to just over 76.6 percent in the past two years. That means that in 2023, about 1 in every 4 travelers has experienced some sort of delay. According to the bureau, weather, late-arriving aircraft, diverted flights, and other reasons all play a part in causing those delays. But two factors in particular—air carrier delays and national aviation system delays—represent a lack of resources and organizational inefficiencies.

In 2019, 5.17 percent of delayed flights were because of air carrier delays. That number dropped to 3.34 in 2020 when COVID-19 brought air travel to a trickle. In 2021, it shot back up to 6.59 percent. And in 2022 air carrier delays accounted for 7.58 percent of all delayed flights.

National aviation delays follow a similar trajectory. So far, 2023 is set to beat numbers in both categories.

A Baby Boomer generation nearing retirement and a wave of pilots who chose to end their careers during the pandemic have left airlines increasingly short-handed. The management consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimated last year that U.S. airlines needed about 8,000 more pilots to meet travel demands. It forecast that number would grow to nearly 30,000 over the next decade.

Sherry Walker, co-founder of Airline Employees for Health Freedom, works as a captain with a major airline and has been flying since 1986. (WORLD agreed to withhold the name of her airline to protect her job.) Walker says that the worsening pilot shortage has led to poor performance across the board. It’s better than it could be, she said. Industry changes, like going from three-man to two-man cockpits and an increased interest in flying because of the Iraq war, have kept the shortage at bay for years. But now Walker says the path to becoming a pilot is getting more difficult.

“When I was learning to fly … you could rent an airplane with gas for like $35 an hour. The same airplane goes for $130 and the gas is $10 a gallon right now,” Walker said. “A lot of people don’t have that kind of cash. So the pipeline—the people are not there.”

Because new passenger pilots require 1,500 hours of flight time before they receive certification, Walker says there’s no quick fix.

One possible solution could be to reduce the number of training hours necessary to obtain an airline pilot’s license. U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., has suggested turning at least some of the required flight time into hours behind the controls of a simulator. But other senators say that could pose a safety risk. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who lost a friend in the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash in New York, said he would oppose dropping training thresholds.

“Under no circumstances will special interests claw back the 1,500 pilot training requirement the Flight 3407 families and I spent more than a decade fighting to enact—in the memory of their loved ones and to prevent a tragedy like this from occurring ever again,” Schumer said in a statement when asked about training standards last year.

Walker proposes raising the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 67—or even removing the age limit and instead implementing stringent cognitive testing. A bipartisan group of senators, including Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., have supported the idea.

“My first officer is missing his right arm,” Walker said. “He flies as good as most. Physically, I would argue there’s few limitations … but they pay us the big bucks for when things go wrong; when you hit takeoff speed and the engine fails. It’s that one minute. You have to be ‘on’ cognitively. That takes experience.”

The House of Representatives passed its version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill back in late July and included a two-year bump to the retirement age. The Senate, currently out on recess, won’t consider the bill until it reconvenes in September.

Shortly after our conversation, Mancini sent a screenshot of his updated boarding pass. With just 15 minutes to board but no plane in sight, it looked like yet another delay would keep him in Atlanta a little while longer.

“I just wish they’d be transparent,” Mancini said.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD reporter covering politics in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.

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