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Airline industry jobs are still below pre-Covid levels

The industry slashed jobs at the start of the pandemic. Two years later, those jobs still aren’t all back.
A pilot rides an escalator at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport
A pilot rides an escalator at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Mich. on Dec. 22, 2021.Emily Elconin / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The airline industry has taken a long time to replace jobs lost at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the staffing issues have led to headaches for air travelers. 

The air industry slashed jobs in early 2020, as stay-at-home orders and Covid fears curbed air travel. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that the industry — which includes full-time and part-time employees at passenger and cargo airlines — shed 1 out of 10 of its jobs from February to October 2020.

While the airlines filled most of the lost jobs, there’s still a large deficit of pilots. Data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows there were 17 percent fewer active commercial pilot certificates — the type of certificate required to fly a passenger plane — in 2021 compared to 2009.

Airlines have blamed staffing issues and bad weather for the rash of flight delays, cancellations and higher prices that have burdened air travelers over the past few months. JetBlue cited staff shortages in trimming its summer flight schedule earlier this month. Analysts expect staffing issues to contribute to higher airfares through the summer.

Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at airfare watchdog Scott’s Cheap Flights, said the lack of employees and pilots has led to a supply chain issue not unlike those faced by the oil, car and consumer electronics industries, where businesses that cut jobs at the outset of the pandemic have found themselves short-staffed as demand returns. 

“You can’t pull a pilot off the street,” Orlando said. “Pilots need a lot of training. When they allowed pilots to leave in 2020, the chain of pilots got interrupted. That’s super important. It’s not enough that they don’t have enough pilots now; they don’t have enough pilots in the pipeline.”

Flight crews can only work a set amount of hours, Orlando said, so a storm that keeps a flight on the runway in one city can set off a cascading series of delays and cancellations in other cities if replacement crews aren’t available.

“There’s no room for error,” Orlando said.