Air travel is a disaster right now

Thompson: Why is it taking so long to adjust? Why is it so hard to hire pilots or bring back more airplanes?

Keyes: Being a pilot is not an entry-level job. It takes years of training. There are many regulatory requirements, like a mandatory retirement age for pilots: 65 years old. There are mandatory training requirements for U.S.-based pilots. They have to fly 1,500 hours before they’re allowed to pilot those commercial planes.

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Similarly, Boeing doesn’t have tons of 787s or 737s sitting in a warehouse waiting for airlines to come pick them up. There’s a years-long delay in a manufacturing process plagued with supply-chain disruptions, just like so many other parts of the economy.

Thompson: The industry is so woefully understaffed that whenever there’s a storm, or a pilot who calls in sick, there’s no redundancy or resiliency in the system, and you get these cascading cancellations. But wasn’t it obvious 18 months ago that we’d have vaccines? Wasn’t it obvious six months ago that Americans wanted to get out of the house? Why is all this mayhem happening now?

Keyes: There’s a labor-supply issue, not just for airlines but also the TSA. If you live in Milwaukee and you’re looking for an entry-level job, you could become a transportation security officer for $19.41 an hour, or you could go on Amazon’s website and see that there’s a job in the area for $19.50. Would you rather help load and unload bags outside in the dead of winter in Milwaukee, or work in a climate-controlled environment in a warehouse for Amazon? That’s the trade-off a lot of folks are making. Labor shortages cause delays and cancellations. In normal times, airlines might have a reserve crew of pilots or flight attendants that they can call in. But now there is not the reserve in place to bridge the gap. The result is a huge swath of delays and cancellations.

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