For more than a year US airlines have bemoaned staffing shortages as a limiting factor in their reliability. Even as staffing numbers return towards 2019 levels, however, operations are lagging. A review of employment numbers and schedules suggests the airlines are up to 20% less efficient than in 2019 on a per-employee basis.
Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and Allegiant are notably larger today than they were in 2022. The ULCC model, operating more point-to-point routes rather than connections over a hub, recovered far more quickly than legacy network operations. As of May 2022 Frontier employed 23% more people than in 2019. Allegiant is up 29% and Spirit 33%.
On a per-employee basis, however, everything about their schedules is smaller. Frontier planned more flights in 2022 than 2019, but on a per-employee basis that number actually dropped about 4%. Spirit scheduled 17.6% fewer flights per employee and Allegiant 16.8% fewer.
Over at the legacy airlines the numbers are similar. Delta, United, and American were all still smaller than their 2019 selves in terms of total employees in May, and their operations even smaller yet. The trio scheduled 10-18% fewer flights per employee than than three years ago. They are using larger planes, with seats per employee down just 5-13%. But the number of people being used to get passengers moving is up across the board.
When it comes to financial performance, airlines generally reported record revenues for the quarter. But also, in most cases, record costs. Much on the cost side is attributed to the spike in fuel to more than $4/gallon. Some airlines are also calling out staffing costs. And while fuel pressures are easing in Q3, staffing costs do not appear to be following that same trend.
Delta Air Lines celebrated the “juniority” effect of lower pay rates for new hires replacing more senior employees who left over the past two years. But the company’s salary costs in Q2 rose 7.3% versus 2019, despite 1.5% fewer employees on payroll in May. JetBlue is up 20% in salary expense for 5% more employees.
Maybe those numbers would be even more skewed had the airlines not realized the juniority effect. But it is far from a panacea in terms of keeping costs below 2019 levels.
And, whether because the staffing is distributed differently than needed, or because the employees are new and still learning the nuance of the jobs, or for some other reason, more of them are required to get planes off the ground. That could further drive costs higher, assuming the trend continues.
Schedule data comes from Cirium. Employment data comes from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
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