Airport chaos is the worst I've ever seen in 30 years of being a pilot – lines are out the door and we can't retrain pilots fast enough

1 year ago 170
  • Patrick Smith flies a Boeing 767 within the US and to Europe, South America, and Africa.
  • He says the travel chaos this summer has been the worst he's seen in his 30 years of flying.
  • This is his pilot's-eye view of the disruption, as told to Claire Turrell.

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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Patrick Smith, a commercial-airline pilot, the creator of "Ask The Pilot" and author of "Cockpit Confidential." It has been edited for length and clarity.

I fly a Boeing 767 across the United States and to Western Europe, Africa, and South America. Flying a plane is something that I've wanted to do since I was a little kid.

I used to spend my weekends watching planes fly in and out of my local airport from the observation deck. I've been a commercial pilot for 30 years now. 

There is a certain level of chaos at every airport right now

Airports are notorious for lines, but now it's on the scale of something I've never seen before — whether it's the customs line, the security line, the immigration line, or the line for coffee.

I was recently flying out of Dublin and saw that the US immigration pre-clearance line extended across two floors.

There seems to be a staffing issue across the board.

In all my time as a pilot, I have never seen anything like this

At the beginning of the pandemic, when airlines made decisions to reduce employee numbers, nobody knew what was going to happen.

The industry — from the airlines to security and air-traffic control — was trying to save itself during an utter catastrophe. A lot of it was guesswork, and here we are.

To help curb the issue, airlines have been preemptively canceling flights and reducing their schedules in certain airports that are prone to delays.

British Airways stopped selling short-haul tickets for a few days during August 2022 for flights out of London Heathrow, while American Airlines reduced flights out of Philadelphia during September and October 2022 by 2%, which doesn't sound like a lot, but for an airline, that's a big number.

I've also seen employees helping out and improvising

Times are strange, and everyone needs to help out a little bit.  

This summer, delays have affected my flights. If we know about a delay in advance, the crew will stay at the hotel, but sometimes we don't know about it until we reach the airport.

For me, the most critical thing at this time is good communication between the airlines and their customers, whether it is letting people know about cancellations or helping them when there has been an unexpected cancellation.

I spend between 12 and 16 days a month on the road. While I didn't fly as much during the pandemic, I still flew regularly. Now I am flying more as there is a lot of overtime for pilots on premium pay; they are also offering bonuses and incentives.

It's actually a good time to get into the industry now as airlines are hiring a lot of pilots.

The airline-training department is backlogged – it can take months to get back in the air

Very few pilots were laid off during the pandemic, but many airlines reassigned their pilots, or put them on no-fly status if their fleet was eliminated, and many pilots retired early. Now they are all retraining to match the demand.

When you're a pilot, you can't just switch aircraft; if you are trained to fly an Airbus, you can't just switch to a Boeing. You need to be retrained.

We have pilots who need to be retrained on a particular aircraft, staff who are upgrading from first officer to captain, and pilots who are returning to flying status.

I know a pilot who started his training in January and didn't finish until May. Retired pilots don't return; once you retire from an airline, due to age or a package settlement, there's no return ride.

For travelers, I would say be patient and don't expect things to run smoothly

If they do, that's a bonus. However, I don't want to make this sound worse than it is. I have worked flights that have been perfectly on time.

I flew from Los Angeles to New York the other day; we left early and arrived early. It was just as it was pre-pandemic. 

What has kept me going this summer is being a flying evangelist. For me, getting there is still part of the fun.

Don't get me wrong, I don't like long lines and delayed flights any more than the next person, but there is something about air travel that still excites me.

Correction August 31, 2022: An earlier version of the story included a comment that the pilot helped load the carry-on bags onto the plane. This was a misquote and has been removed.

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