September 12, 2023
Chairman and CEO, AirBus Americas
As airline travel recovers to pre-pandemic levels, industry leaders are looking ahead, aiming to bring commercial aviation into the future. During the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2023 Global Aerospace Summit, the CEOs of JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines discussed how their companies are addressing the industry's issues and opportunities for future growth.
Staffing Shortages and Operational Challenges Impacted Commercial Airlines in 2023
Staffing shortages and operational issues challenged the commercial aviation industry in the summer of 2023.
“We went into [the summer] more staffed up than we ever had before … at some considerable cost,” said Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue Airways Corp. “But really, the story of the summer has been [staffing] for air traffic control.”
Hayes added that JetBlue continues to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address air traffic control staffing issues, especially during inclement weather.
“The only way to address this in the short to medium term is to actually look at some of these flight caps, to make sure … we’re not overtaxing the airspace,” he added.
Peter Ingram, President & CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, noted strong demand in Hawaii this summer, prior to the tragedy in Maui. However, operational challenges still impacted the company earlier in the season.
“Our challenges were really from an operational perspective … from October of last year through May of this year, when one of the runways was out at Honolulu Airport … combined with how the air traffic control system managed that operating with two runways,” said Ingram. “Thankfully, we’ve got the primary runway back again now, [and] things have improved.”
Staffing Shortages Are Stymying Modernization Efforts
Per Hayes and Ingram, one of the biggest roadblocks to the modernization of the industry is staffing shortages at the FAA.
“I think we should have recognized sooner. And if people did recognize it sooner, they should have rang the alarm bells to say we’re way behind in terms of staff on air traffic control,” said Ingram.
He emphasized that modernization efforts are falling behind with these ongoing staffing shortages.
“We’re not even talking about modernization,” Ingram elaborated. “We’re just talking about, ‘Let’s staff for the technology we have today. Let’s get enough controllers hired. Let’s get them through training. Let’s get them fully qualified so that we can manage the system.’”
Hayes noted that the difficulty in bringing carriers and federal regulators up to speed has “significant consumer ramifications.”
“Flights are a huge stimulant to economic activity,” he explained. “New York has not recovered from COVID, so going to New York and [having to] reduce flights between 10 and 20 percent just to operate the system, it is very frustrating … we made a big bet on New York.”
Airlines Are Working to Mitigate Staffing Issues and Regulatory Challenges
The aviation industry is facing a shortage of qualified pilots and mechanics. According to Ingram, Hawaiian Airlines has successfully bolstered its talent pipeline over the past year.
“We’ve got a new pilot collective bargaining agreement in place since the beginning of this year. We’ve got a greater proportion of wide-body airplanes than any airline in the U.S.,” Ingram said. “We’ve got a very attractive position where people can have very lucrative careers, and we can get people in the door.”
Hayes shared an equally optimistic outlook on the industry’s talent pipeline.
“I think we as airlines have got very creative over the last few years … [and] I’m already confident that, you know, this problem is addressing itself,” Hayes elaborated. “We’re seeing flight schools get full again and people coming in.”
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