Alternate view: The airlines aren't holding up their end of the deal

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

One of the few facts of American life in 2022 that is pretty much beyond dispute is the reality that air travel is a disaster these days. It wasn’t very good before the pandemic if we’re being honest, but at least the airlines usually managed to get you where you needed to go, albeit in tiny, cramped seats and with barely edible snacks. But that’s no longer the case today. Flight delays and cancellations are just a fact of life now. I’ve gone back and forth in terms of where the real blame lies for this because there’s just so much blame to go around. The airlines have tried to blame the FAA (along with the weather and climate change) for these problems. The only thing our vaunted Transportation Secretary has been able to think of is threatening them with fines without proposing any solutions to improve the situation.

But in the end, it all comes down to the pilot shortage. Since the airlines have recently instituted a bunch of changes to slowly get their staffing situation back under control, I’ve been tempted to cut them at least a little slack. But there is another factor in this equation that I probably haven’t given enough consideration. At the New York Post, Karol Markowicz offers an important reminder about our recent history during the early days of the pandemic. It may not be possible for the airlines to immediately put a sufficient number of pilots in their planes today, but they should never have experienced a pilot shortage to begin with. The taxpayers gave the airlines tens of billions of dollars (literally) to keep people employed during the pandemic shutdowns but they slashed their pilots from the payrolls anyway. In short, the blame still lies with them because they took the money and didn’t hold up their end of the deal.

Why would there be a pilot shortage, the average flyer screams into the void. In one of the dumbest moves possible, pilots were encouraged to retire early to avoid being laid off during the pandemic.

But here is exactly where the poor performance of airlines becomes a bigger deal than just a business failing to deliver quality service to the customer. Throughout the last two years, airlines received more than $50 billion in pandemic-relief money. Our money. Congress has tried to demand answers about how that money was spent, but just like all of their other boondoggles, they could not come up with any clear answers.

That money was meant to preserve jobs and save an industry. Pilots, pretty important to the whole flying thing, should never have been encouraged off the job. Instead, the industry is in disarray, staff were laid off anyway and the money is gone.

Markowicz points out another factor that led to this mess. The airlines kept insisting that only vaccinated workers (including pilots) could remain on the job. Those with exemptions were placed on paid leave but unvaccinated workers without an exemption were fired. They stuck with that policy until nearly April of this year and then gave up on it. They didn’t have to do that. They could have left all of the pilots, including the unvaccinated ones on the payroll using the money the government gave them for that purpose. But now, as the author points out, the pilots are gone and so is the money.

Meanwhile, the dramatic fights that were taking place on airplanes have largely disappeared now that the mask mandates are gone. But that doesn’t mean that the other conditions on the planes have improved significantly. They are still jamming in seats as tightly as possible. And these are seats, as Markowicz reminds us, that were “designed for someone who is 4’8” and 95 pounds. They’ve tortured us in a variety of ways.”

Nothing in this analysis suggests a silver bullet that will put the flights back on schedule reliably and return air travel to “normal” in the short term. There simply may not be a solution and we’ll be stuck with this situation for years to come. But the author does close with one reminder that voters should impress on the government in every election from here on out. Let’s learn from our mistakes.

Perhaps the real lesson here is the federal government should stop handing out free cash with no strings attached even in times of crisis. Here’s hoping every elected official whose flight is delayed two hours, six hours or eventually canceled remembers they gave this industry the money to treat us like this. And then let’s hope they don’t do it again.

It’s a great idea, but you’re talking about stifling the impulse of the federal government to give away mountains of “free money” every time any sort of difficulty arises in the name of looking like they are “doing something.” Most of the money never winds up landing where it was supposed to go and much is lost to ongoing fraud and theft. But I doubt that will stop them any time soon.