After the face mask mandates for airline travel were lifted, most (though not all) passengers gave three cheers. Other restrictions have been lifted as well, with a resultant surge in domestic air travel as people welcomed the chance to once again take vacations and get back to normal. But as we learned over Memorial Day weekend, simply putting the pandemic restrictions largely behind us and booking vacations wasn’t as easy as it sounded. You and your fellow air travelers may be ready to go back to how things were in the pre-pandemic days, but the airlines most certainly are not. Over Memorial Day, the number of flights that were either canceled or delayed so severely as to peg out the misery meter were literally in the thousands across the United States. This left many people scrambling for different accommodations at the last minute.

At Inc. Magazine, Jason Aten shares one such story of his own, though it ends with an unexpectedly satisfying resolution. When one of his flights with Delta was canceled, he was forced to rebook from a direct flight to one with a three-hour layover. This was obviously inconvenient, but Delta later reached out to him with an unexpected offer.

If your job is running a massive network that involves packing hundreds of people onto flying metal tubes and ferrying them from one place to another, canceling a large number of those flights is one of the biggest challenges you have to deal with.

That’s basically what happened over Memorial Day weekend. Thousands of flights were canceled during what was the busiest travel period in the last few years. Those cancelations continued as airlines try to match their capacity to the surge in demand.

Flight cancellations, as unfortunate as they are, are a part of running an airline. Things are going to go wrong. What matters is how you respond when they do.

What Delta decided to do was preemptively reach out to Jason with an email offering a full-throated apology for the inconvenience he suffered and 10,000 bonus miles for each member of his party. He goes on to describe how admirable it was that they apologized before receiving a complaint and offered some sort of a reward as compensation. He wishes more companies would do that.

I’m sure that was great news for Jason and I’m happy it worked out for him, but apology letters and bonus miles don’t really do anything to address the underlying problem. You don’t need any in-depth research reports to understand what’s taking place currently. You just need to go to any airport. And as we get into the summer holiday and vacation season, you’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

The reality is that the airlines in America are not “back to normal.” They’re not even close. What happened to Jason used to happen “once in a while,” but most flights that were booked well in advance tended to depart relatively close to being on time. Now there seem to be almost as many cancellations as there are successful trips. And it’s only during the periods of lowest demand when the major airlines seem to be able to keep up.

The reality is that the airlines lost a lot of pilots during the pandemic and a lot of them are simply not coming back. It doesn’t matter how early you check in at the airport if there isn’t a pilot available to fly the plane. Industry analysts predict that it will take years to balance out the pilot shortage.

At the same time, airlines are struggling not to price themselves out of business even as jet fuel prices have continued to soar. Jet fuel now costs 100% more than it did one year ago and it’s not expected to get cheaper over the next twelve months.

On top of that, all of the major carriers have already eliminated a number of regional service flights (largely in response to the pilot shortage). This isn’t just inconvenient if you’re trying to fly into our out of a lower-population area. It redirects even more flights to the major hubs. The volume of demand for flights converges with the shortage of pilots and you have a recipe for even more cancellations and delays. And for every flight that fails to take off from a major hub, one or more planes at their scheduled destination points will now be without a pilot as well. During high traffic periods, the problem compounds itself from “normal” to “total misery” very quickly.

So if you have been finding yourself having trouble when trying to travel by air, keep in mind that it’s not just you. It’s not your imagination. And all of the happy talk coming from the government and the media will not mask the reality of what’s going on. The airlines are in logistical trouble and they do not foresee a full recovery for quite some time to come.

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