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Transportation secretary calls air travel system ‘brittle’ after weekend of cancellations

Airplane taxing on the runway
Posted at 2:15 PM, Aug 10, 2022

Air travel continued a summer of disruptions last weekend, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the system “fragile.”

On Sunday, Flight Aware reported 900 cancellations with more than 6,000 delays.

Although there was some severe weather in New England on Sunday, Buttigieg said weather alone did not cause all of the disruptions.

"There was a lot of severe weather and that can happen, but it shouldn't have created the kind of ripple effects through the system that it did,” Buttigieg told CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday. “That is something that to me is an indication that we still have not seen the improvements that we need, that the system is very brittle."

Buttigieg cited shortages in staff for delays.

"The biggest element of it is the human factor, not having enough crew, especially pilots, to do the job. And airlines of course have an obligation to service the tickets that they sell,” he said. “What we're seeing is that the hiring has come back in most areas, but they're still short on pilots."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there are 114,000 pilots as of 2020.

“About 14,500 openings for airline and commercial pilots are projected each year, on average, over the decade,” the agency said. “Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”

Airline unions have pushed back on claims of a worker shortage. They have also rejected calls to increase the age for pilot retirement.

“The plain truth is that airlines should take responsibility for their business decisions to cut or reduce service to less-profitable markets while adding service to high-demand communities,” said Capt. Joe DePete, Air Line Pilots Association president “Instead, they’re making excuses that aren’t supported in fact or, far worse, calling for regulation rollbacks that would threaten safety.”

Last month, a group of Republican senators introduced a bill that would raise the age of retirement for airline pilots by two years to 67. They claim that 5,000 pilots are set to retire in the next two years.

“There is a severe and growing pilot shortage in the United States. Every air traveler sees and feels the impact when they go to the airport,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “One of the biggest causes of air delays is a lack of available crews. This summer, if your plane actually leaves on time, you feel like you won the lottery. My legislation extends the mandatory retirement age by two years and will make an immediate and appreciable difference in keeping highly-trained pilots on the job. The traveling public deserves better than what they are currently getting. Our bill moves the needle in the right direction to address the critical pilot shortage.”