The airline industry has quickly pivoted to accommodate what’s been labeled “the summer surge.” With travel restrictions loosening, both domestically and internationally, and vaccinations increasing, TSA checkpoint numbers are trending up. US carriers are announcing a dramatic influx of new routes and increased capacity. Instead of scaling strategically, airlines risk pushing things too quickly to keep up with the rebound momentum.
How COVID-19 Compares to Setbacks in Aviation History
According to the airline industry group Airlines for America, compared to pre-pandemic levels, passenger volume on U.S. carriers was down 53% in mid-March 2021 (but it was up from 90%, the lowest point in the pandemic). COVID’s negative impact on the airline industry dwarfs similar aviation events in history.
In 2021, leisure travel is leading a surge in travel bookings (while business travel may not return to pre-COVID numbers until 2025). In a recent study of 3,500 U.S. customers by Allianz Partners, two-thirds of Americans stated they believe receiving a COVID-19 vaccine will make them feel safe enough to travel again (via Forbes). The race to return to pre-COVID numbers is predicted to present obstacles—especially as airlines work to find qualified staff to support the surge.
The Summer Rebound
We predict that staffing will be the biggest challenge for US carriers getting planes ready to hit the skies in pre-COVID numbers. In an ideal world, the airlines would gradually increase steadily by redistributing flight schedules to avoid back-to-back flights and overworked employees, but that’s not what the summer projections show. The current flight schedule shows that airlines are rebounding faster than what the market can handle from a staffing perspective. Not only do carriers need to put teams above-wing and below-wing to perform operations, but they will also be continuously adapting to changing protocols that were put in place last year, such as unblocking the middle seats and electrostatic spraying. As teams scramble to assemble a freshman class of staff, there will be numerous moving parts to juggle. Providing quality on-the-job training and recruiting competent staff are the top priorities.
How to Prepare Your Ground Handling Crew
The consequences of an overworked team can be catastrophic. Excessive overtime can potentially lead to aircraft damage and safety issues. Failure to manage employee schedules and keep overtime down may result in exhaustion and injury.
We believe this challenge presents an ideal opportunity for carriers and service providers to partner together for a common goal. By striking a balance between common teams and skillsets and agreeing upon a predetermined rate, we can blend teams to account for situations where we end up short-staffed. As we ramp up to the busy season, experienced leaders have a chance to embrace flexibility and work hand-in-hand during a different type of unprecedented time in aviation history.
Unifi: Your Partner in Ground Services
At Unifi, we’re empowering our teams to gear up for increased travel, from staffing to equipment. Our operations leaders track carrier flight schedules and analyze historic staffing models based on peak travel seasons to ensure we’re recruiting a national team to support the demand safely. We are also passing this information to our carrier partners to help them understand what’s required to staff the surge.
One of our most significant advantages at Unifi is that our executive team is comprised of a conglomerate of experience from multiple airlines and ground handling backgrounds. In addition to our varied perspectives and expertise, we also cross-utilize and cross-train our employees throughout different lines of service, meaning most of our employees can perform more than one role when necessary.
We’re poised to be a true partner for our carrier clients as we taxi into the busy season ahead. Get in touch with our team to learn more about our services, clients, and differentiators.