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Airline Organization Blames “Great Resignation” for Operational Difficulties

Answering questions from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Airlines for America say the tight labor market – not the use of PSP funds – is to blame for operational problems.
When airlines experienced operational troubles throughout the summer of 2021, lawmakers questioned if the usage of Payroll Support Program (PSP) funds was to blame for the problems.


A trade group representing many of the major U.S. airlines are pushing back against that narrative, claiming a tight labor market and lack of resources are to blame for aviation issues. Industry organization Airlines for America responded to the questions asked of airlines earlier this year in an open letter to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.


Operational Disruptions Blamed on “A Variety of Different Issues”

In the letter written by organization president Nicholas E. Calio, the organization notes the 11 largest U.S. carriers – consisting of the A4A member airlines along with Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Sun Country Airlines – received a total of $49.6 billion in PSP funds. This covered 77.4 percent of payroll costs, but the group says it did leave the companies with a shortfall of funds.


“Carriers had to take significant measures to preserve liquidity and avoid deeper cuts that would have been necessary in a potential bankruptcy proceeding,” Calio wrote in the letter. “Carriers were experiencing unprecedented rates of cash burn (negative cash flow) and had no indication as to when the industry, let alone the nation, would turn a corner.”


While A4A says all the funds were used to keep airline employees at their jobs, they claim PSP availability was not the core issue for the problems experienced this summer. At least three airlines – American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Spirit – experienced network meltdowns created by a combination of weather and staff availability.


The group blames the problems on several issues, including the resurgence of passengers over the summer and a lack of employees coming back to the airlines. The group estimates 50,000 employees took early retirement or voluntary separation packages, while 100,000 more accepted unpaid leave of absences.


“Airlines were surprised to discover the extent to which many workers who had taken leave of voluntary separation did not want to return to work in the airline industry,” Calio writes. “Some were concerned about their employer’s financial viability. Others were frustrated by the lack of civility and escalation of unruly behavior exhibited by some customers.”


Workers calling in sick were also an issue that led to operational problems. Between absenteeism issues which “were especially acute on weekends and holidays when travel demand was higher,” and extreme weather patterns which began on Fridays, the organization says they were stressed to the max.


Finally, a lack of hotel rooms also complicated the stressors for airlines. Because hotels experienced issues with staffing and preparing room inventory during the pandemic, Calio says carriers had “numerous problems finding suitable accommodations for their pilots and flight attendants,” resulting in cancellations.


Finding Employees Remains Top Priority for Airlines

Despite the issues, Calio tells the lawmakers that finding and training employees remains a top priority for airlines going into the end of the year. The head of A4A says airlines are “hosting job fairs; aggressively marketing their companies as employers; hiring and training new employees; [and] recalling employees that had taken voluntary leave,” along with bringing aircraft back into operation in order to relieve future airline issues.