Why flying is so much worse after COVID

We spent $63 billion bailing out the airline industry. Just look at us now!

Face it, air travel is worse in almost every way since the pandemic.

But to get an idea of how much worse, you have to read the letter Sen. Maria Cantwell sent to the major airlines on Friday. Cantwell is one of the architects of the $63 billion airline bailout.

The terms of the government rescue were simple: Airlines would maintain their staffing levels in exchange for government aid.

Sen. Cantwell suspects they didn't. She says she's troubled by recent reports of workforce shortages, flight cancellations and delays that have "created havoc and frustrated consumers as more Americans resume travel."

You don't need a U.S. senator to tell you that air travel is a disaster. But the significance of this can't be understated. The airline bailout wouldn't have happened without the help of Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. 

It turns out air travel in the summer of 2021 is a lot worse than anyone could have predicted. There's very little you can do about it, apart from canceling your travel plans. But I like some of the ideas for fixing this airline problem, and I think you will, too.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: I'd love to get your comments on summer air travel. Have you flown since the beginning of summer? How bad was it? Or, if you're a contrarian, how good was it? Push the red button to leave your comment.

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How bad is flying now?

No two ways about it: Flying is a miserable experience now. On Friday, airlines delayed 5,260 flights and canceled 175 flights within the United States. The most-delayed major carrier is JetBlue (half its flights are delayed) followed by Southwest Airlines (40 percent) and American (one-third of its flights are not on time). 

If you're about to go somewhere, you might want to check out FlightAware's misery map that shows the cancellations in almost real-time.

Airlines are blaming everyone but themselves. They say it's the weather, their employees (too many people took their buyout offers) and the government (the military didn't train enough pilots). 

Come on. Weather is an issue every summer. I checked out the Air Force mission statement and didn't see anything in there about the military being responsible for training airline pilots. Can someone help me with that?

But the problem goes beyond delayed flights. Passengers are reporting unconscionable service lapses on the ground, too. We're talking hours-long wait times for talking to a customer service agent by phone. Our consumer helpline has been flooded by passengers who are dealing with booking mistakes, sluggish service -- or nonexistent service.

To say that passengers are upset would be an understatement. I've covered the issue in this newsletter. Passengers are furious. Unfortunately, they're taking their aggressions out on airline employees.

What to do about it

Airlines are alarmed and embarrassed by the situation.

Customers on Delta Air Lines are reporting nine-hour hold times.

"It’s not okay," Kristen Taylor, Delta's senior vice president of inflight services, said in an internal memo to airline employees exclusively obtained by Elliott Confidential. She noted that her team has been "utilizing every possible option and solution to minimize the impact to you and our customers."

She added, "I am sorry for the position these challenges can put you in."

Delta CEO Ed Bastian even suggested that passengers email him if they had trouble getting through to the carrier. His address is ed.bastian@delta.com. My USA Today colleague, Dawn Gilbertson, verified the email and added that Bastian asked passengers to "be kind" when they contact him.

You know what, Ed? That's a great slogan for Delta. Why don't you drop "Keep Climbing" and use "Be Kind"?

Anyway, if you're thinking of flying, this is probably not the time. As I noted in my story about canceling your summer vacation, you may want to reschedule your trip for this fall.

But there are other ways to take action.

What should happen

Read between the lines in Cantwell's letter, and it's not hard to see where she's going. The senator suspects airlines didn't use their bailout money to keep their staffing level at an acceptable level. Instead, they aggressively downsized and were then caught unprepared for the return of travel.

Sen. Cantwell wants a refund.

I think we all deserve a refund. Not just for the bailout -- and yes, even though airline apologists say it isn't a bailout, it most certainly is -- but also for the money we gave them when we canceled our pandemic flights. By one count, airlines are holding at least $24 billion of their customers' money

You can sign the Travelers United petition to try to get your money back.

Airlines should stop offering empty excuses and do what they promised. Bring their staffing levels back up to where they promised they would be. Stop insulting our intelligence by blaming the weather or the U.S. military. This is the airlines' fault, and only they can fix it.

Can Cantwell claw back $63 billion from an entire industry? 

Probably not. But wouldn't it be fun to see her try?

OK, your turn. Do you think air travel is worse after the pandemic? If so, why? Do you buy the airline industry's excuses? Why or why not? The comments are open, my friends.

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