Air travel will suck this summer. Blame the airlines’ shortsighted layoffs.
American, Delta, and United spent a year laying off workers. Now the airlines need them back.By Terry Nguyen Jun 28, 2021, 8:30am EDT
The airlines are no longer desperate. Gone are the pandemic-era flight deals, flexible booking policies, and open middle seats. Millions of Americans are traveling again, as the weather warms (in some parts of the US) and vaccination rates rise. This is cause for optimism. The joys of normal life — summer vacations and guilt-free social gatherings — are on the horizon. But first, the airport.
Travel is back, and so are its all-too-many inconveniences: long security lines, pissed-off passengers, boarding mishaps, and random airline fees. It’s not good news for summer travelers, especially those with trips booked around Independence Day, so plan accordingly for all of the above. And it isn’t just that rowdy travelers might be acting up. From a logistical standpoint, things have actually gotten worse.
The number of flyers daily in the US is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, even though business and international travel have been slow to resume. Airlines and airports have struggled to accommodate this influx, which has resulted in longer customer service wait times, significant flight delays, and sudden cancellations. In some cities, airport concession stands and restaurants aren’t fully staffed or open, leaving stranded travelers with fewer options for food and beverages.
Industry executives have attributed such inconveniences to bad weather and, perhaps more vaguely, “labor shortages.” A May memo from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to its employees warned that over 100 of America’s largest airports will struggle with staffing shortages and asked office workers to assist with airport security on a volunteer basis. Delta’s CEO was concerned about staffing enough contracted workers for the summer. American Airlines recently announced plans to cancel hundreds of flights in July, citing “unprecedented weather,” a spike in travel demand, and a dearth of workers. Skift, a news site on the travel industry, predicted a summer full of subpar domestic travel experiences — from elbow-to-elbow seating on flights to sold-out destinations — as a result of the labor shortage.
Republican lawmakers and business leaders have used similar language to describe America’s slow job recovery. They’ve blamed the worker shortage on generous unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, claiming that people would rather stay at home and receive government aid than apply for jobs, a theory rejected by economists. According to the Washington Post’s Heather Long, America is undergoing a “great reassessment of work,” as people consider changing their industry or seek out higher-paying, stable jobs that are less public-facing. Regardless of the reason, America’s labor market is still far from normal, and certain sectors are recovering at different rates.
After a year spent slashing jobs, airlines and aviation subcontractors are now back on the hiring train. It’s not enough to hire back workers; those workers need to undergo training and security clearances. “For airlines, you just don’t go out and hire somebody,” Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant, told Yahoo Finance. “If you’re going to have them work at a ticket counter, they have to have training in hazardous materials and security. You just don’t bring people on real quick. The real issue is [the airlines] had to let somebody go.”
United’s CEO recently warned of a pending pilot shortage as older crew members retire, but it’s not just pilots that are in demand. Airlines and airports are looking to staff a variety of positions, from flight crew and food service workers to customer call staff and gate agents.
The airlines’ response has been akin to a corporate shoulder shrug that sidesteps the industry’s role in fragmenting its workforce, argued Laura Moran, a spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union. “There was a time when most folks — the customer service and wheelchair agents, security officers, cabin cleaners, and baggage handlers — were directly employed by the airlines,” Moran said. “Now, we have a real patchwork of subcontracted workers who perform crucial labor for the airlines.”
“WE HAVE A REAL PATCHWORK OF SUBCONTRACTED WORKERS WHO PERFORM CRUCIAL LABOR FOR THE AIRLINES”
Some of these positions were first on the chopping block when travel halted. Thousands of jobs were nixed to stem immediate revenue loss — by airlines, airports, or the vendors they contracted out work. The travel and leisure industry accounted for a staggering 39 percent of all US job losses from Covid-19. Airlines cut about 90,000 full-time, in-house positions by the end of 2020, including the 30,000 workers they’ve placed on furlough.
Workers employed directly by the airlines were promised some job security; domestic carriers received billions of dollars in federal aid — $25 billion in April 2020 and $15 billion in December 2020 — predicated on the condition that they would bring back employees or keep them on payroll for a set period of time. But thousands of others in contracted positions, like cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants, weren’t offered the same protections. A House investigation revealed that aviation contractors axed tens of thousands of jobs — roughly 15 percent of their workforce — even after receiving CARES Act funding for payroll assistance.
Thus, it’s inaccurate to chalk up a diminished passenger experience to a “labor shortage” without contextualizing the airline industry’s working conditions and standards — and why it’s seemingly unable to summon back tens of thousands of crucial workers. A shortage does little to acknowledge the fluctuations in work consistency and lack of financial security that many have contended with. The industry has long relied on an understaffed and underpaid workforce, with many clocking in on the front lines (which, again, are unusually stressful these days). Yet, airlines have consistently deflected blame toward the vendors and contractors that employ some of these missing workers. It’s a tactic used by major corporations (and the airlines themselves) to shirk responsibility for low wages and the lack of worker benefits and protections.
Airlines work with different vendors to outsource different types of labor, from cleaning to food services to baggage handling. These vendors independently negotiate subcontracting agreements with the airline, Moran explained, which determines workers’ wages and benefits: “The result is a disconnected system of work with no standard wages, and it’s a situation the airlines have created to keep costs down and profits up. It’s unreasonable that low-wage Black and brown workers on the front lines are expected to bear the brunt of these problems when airlines are trying to reach profitability.”
Now, across the country, it seems there are fewer workers willing to return to an underpaid, unstable job, whether in retail, food service, or travel. The work of airport unions and organized labor in recent years have helped secure better wages for subcontracted employees, but inequities still persist in many cities.
“There isn’t a shortage of workers. There is a shortage of workers wanting to come back to work for poverty wages,” said Elsa Caballero, president of SEIU Texas, whose union represents janitorial, security, and building staff in airports. “Airlines, which are a major employer in Houston, are still paying way below $12 an hour.”
United, for example, has previously downplayed its relationship to subcontracted airport workers, dismissing its influence over vendors’ pay. In response to a “Fight for $15” protest in 2017, a spokesperson emphasized how United does “not have a direct employer-employee relationship with [its] vendors’ employees,” as if that alone absolves the airline of any responsibility.
However, airlines do have leverage to raise wages, if they choose to intervene and place pressure on contractors. Workers at Philadelphia International Airport, for example, qualified for a $12 minimum wage after the city passed a “living wage” ordinance in 2014, but subcontracting companies refused to increase their pay rate until American Airlines upped its contract to pay for the discrepancy. American interjected again in 2017, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, when contractors refused to bargain with the workers’ union.
“In Houston, we’ve had to work with the mayor and city officials to create an executive order to ensure that an airline like United will pay workers a living wage,” Caballero said. “We know airlines can pay more, but they are lowballing the contracts they offer vendors.”
Substantial federal aid has done little to assuage workers’ and union leaders’ fears of further layoffs. Airlines are still searching for ways to keep costs low. United Airlines, for example, told its in-house catering workers earlier this year that it was “exploring the option” of working with a third-party contractor for its kitchen services, igniting a series of worker protests in April.
Running an airline is a high-cost operation. Slate’s Henry Grabar previously described the industry as “low-margin, capital-intensive businesses,” which means a company’s cash savings won’t be very helpful during an extensive crisis. ”Capital-intensive means it’s hard to tighten your belt,” Grabar wrote. “You can save some money on fuel and food, but not on labor or rent. You still have to pay banks or leasing companies for your planes. You can’t save those seats for later, or fly twice as many flights when business picks up again. There is no factory to shut down. Even if you ground flights, many costs are fixed.” Customers have been expected to pay additional fees on top of ticket costs for additional luggage, seat selection, and priority boarding. (Fees are also another stream of revenue for airlines, one that is exempt from the 7 percent excise tax on domestic airfare.)
Yet the aviation industry has a long history of generously padding the wallets of its executives, investors, and other shareholders through stock buybacks and hefty compensation packages. All this, despite being a fundamentally expensive business. So far, they’ve squared that tricky circle by passing on costs to the consumer and neglecting the needs of workers who are central to airline operations.
While customer service and labor issues can seem at odds with one another, Caballero argues that improved working conditions can directly affect the passenger experience. Travelers and workers could find solidarity in the fact that they both expect more from airlines. If travelers are being nickel-and-dimed for every expense, where does the additional money go? Research shows that higher pay boosts employee performance and retention; in a place like the airport, in which so many workers are public-facing employees (sometimes dealing with unruly passengers), fair compensation and benefits should be prerequisites.
“This is a consumer issue,” said Caballero. “It affects passengers when airport workers are paid poorly and don’t want to show up, when there’s no one to push a wheelchair or answer questions at the gate. Their work is undervalued, yet it’s incredibly important to passengers.”