US airline passenger traffic – which had nosedived for much of 2020 and part of 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – seems to be coming back at a steady rate, if security screening numbers from the Transportation Security Administration are any indication. Looking at the federal security agency’s May numbers shows a continuing rise in what TSA calls “throughput,” or the number of passengers going through its US airport checkpoint security stations daily.
For example, this last Sunday, May 16th, shows that nearly 1.9million air travelers made their way through TSA checkpoints when, for the same Sunday in 2020, only about 254,000 did so. This strong rebound in passenger numbers, though, highlights a key question: Will airlines have enough workers to handle the increased load, given the number of early retirements and separations they encouraged to help deal with the dramatic decrease in revenues owing to the coronavirus pandemic?
‘Right-Sizing’ Employee Ranks
During the pandemic, airlines ‘right-sized’ or trimmed their employee ranks, offering employees early retirement packages, buyouts, and other incentives to encourage them to leave. By and large, most US airlines were also able to avoid involuntary layoffs and furloughs, partly because of financial aid they received from the federal government. Reducing employee numbers made sense for airlines because far fewer passengers were flying during the pandemic as government shelter-in-place and lockdown orders, along with worry about possible infection from flying – in what amounted to an enclosed tube -- with other people, kept many travelers from taking to the skies.
National Labor Shortage
With the coronavirus pandemic finally seeming to be receding in the rearview mirror, airlines are excited as bookings rise and their planes fly with more and more passengers. Leisure travel may surge, even, as the busy summer travel season of 2021 could equal the travel figures airlines saw over the summer of 2019. This is good news for the airline industry, no doubt, but a shortage of employees – not only among airlines but also for the American workforce at large – could be looming.
Demand Outpacing Supply
In short, the supply of airline, airport, and air travel-related workers may not be enough to meet the rise in air travel demand, especially as we round into the busiest travel season of the year. Leaving TSA and its own hiring goals out of the mix, airlines and airports are hoping to fill a wide variety of jobs ranging from airport concessions to staffing airline customer lounges and everything in-between, such as for part-time and full-time baggage handlers and other airline customer service workers.
According to the American Staffing Association, a trade group representing employment and staffing agencies, a broader national labor shortage is also being seen. Spokespersons at the group remarked that staffing firms can’t source enough talent to meet current employer demand. Many workers are apparently not ready to return to the workplace, the group says.
Summer Travel Season
Don’t let potential airline and airport worker shortages negatively affect your flying experience. Air travelers can help themselves this coming summer travel season by making their travel arrangements as soon as they’ve firmed up their intention to fly, by arriving early to check in for their flights, and by packing smart. TSA has plenty of helpful tips and suggestions for packing your carryon and checked luggage so that both you and your luggage make it through security screening with the minimum of fuss. You should also refer to airlines’ websites for their own recommendations as to check-in times and coping with busy airports.
Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.