Flights canceled, bags lost: How to learn from the airline industry and get through staffing shortages

If you planned a trip at some point this summer, you’ve surely felt it. Airports are more crowded than usual. Flights are continuously getting delayed, canceled, and overbooked. Traveling has gone from a respite from the grind of daily living to a challenge in itself.

Federal transportation officials say 88,161 flights were canceled through May—the second-most in the first five months of a year since 1988, topped only by the pandemic in 2020. It’s all over the news: flights are being canceled constantly; luggage is lost. The airline industry is suffering, and it all boils down to staffing shortages.

We can all learn from this. After all, the post-pandemic labor market is very different from what it looked like pre-pandemic. Employees’ priorities have changed, wanting to be compensated fairly and competitively, appreciated for their work, and provided with growth opportunities. In the airline industry, strikes have been prevalent—but other industries can expect the same if they are not investing in their people in a way that attracts and retains them.

Imagining how this all came about isn’t difficult. First, there were bans on traveling and then requirements for providing negative Covid tests to travel. The airline industry wasn’t prepared for the perfect storm that hit when travel restrictions eased. During the pandemic, they had to let go or furlough many of their employees due to travel bans. But now, travel is back in full force—and there’s a huge demand to go back to normal and explore. 

Cathy Panah, a senior account executive at Curate Partners, has an interesting perspective on what went wrong. “It seems like leaders were not prepared to accommodate the demand because they couldn’t retain employees or hire new ones fast enough,” she says. “There were unique challenges for the airline industry, but staffing plans should have been better executed to reduce the other issues.” 

She’s right. The proper staffing plan is the key to dealing with demand in any industry. Here are four things we can learn from the airline industry and its staffing shortages.

Don’t wait until there’s a desperate need to begin hiring.

It’s common knowledge that the hiring process can take a while—the average hiring time frame in the U.S. is 42 days yet candidates are off the market in 9 days. This obviously depends on how efficient your hiring practices are, but you should never wait until you are desperate for more employees to begin the process.

If you’re facing a staffing shortage, your company should do self-reflection exercises to see why you’re not staffing up the way you need to. Are you offering flexible, remote, or hybrid options? How do you pay compared to other companies in your industry? What does your hiring process look like, and how long does it take?

But Panah takes it one step further. She suggests, “What would a current employee say to a prospective employee? Would they tell them they are happy with their employer?” 

If you can answer these questions honestly, it gives you glaring insight into whether you can retain and attract employees. Of course, it’s helpful to have happy employees because they speak positively about your company to prospects, but it’s more than that. If leaders fear their employees’ honest answers, then it’s clear they need to adjust to the culture, benefits, and career development offered before they even think about hiring. 

“Leaders who are investing in their workers, paying them well, trusting them to get their work done from where they choose to work, and providing them with growth opportunities—these are the leaders who have a happy workforce,” Panah says. 

Lure back previous employees, and seek out nontraditional talent.

During the pandemic, airlines lost thousands of employees. They handed out early retirement packages, laid off some employees, and received resignations from others. So why not target a hiring campaign to the talent you know is already qualified and trained? 

Research from McKinsey shows that attracting “nontraditional” workers—those who left traditional employment in favor of gig work or entrepreneurship—means offering flexibility, meaningful work, adequate compensation, and career development. 

People who voluntarily leave their jobs—especially during and since the pandemic—are going in search of these “nontraditional” priorities. If your company can prove that it can provide what they are looking for, your hiring goals will be met and onboarding time will likely shorten.

Offer new hires what they’re worth.

If you’re in the market to staff up your employee base and want a chance to hire the best of who’s out there, you need to offer new hires what they’re worth. In the airline industry, airlines are getting creative. In June, American Airlines increased the pilot pay for its understaffed carriers by more than 50%, and Delta announced that it partnered with a private jet operator to allow pilots in its training program to log flight hours—and give them a quicker path to full-time employment.

While we’re not suggesting you offer a 50% raise to guarantee a speedy hiring process, you should provide new hires at least what their market value is. Can you offer them something besides their requested salary to sweeten the deal? Perhaps they want a hybrid work environment or a contract-to-hire opportunity to leave them open to freelancing. Maybe it’s benefits that they’re after, and you can offer paid time off and health benefits. No matter what compensation you decide, you must ensure the new hire feels valued and appreciated.

With Delta’s think-outside-of-the-box plan, they are set to hire and train more than 2,400 pilots this year. So what’s your outside-of-the-box plan for your company? How are you going to stand out from other employers? 

Don’t compromise the quality of the candidate.

You may be in need of new hires, but that doesn’t mean you need to compromise on the quality of the candidate. Always pursue those purple squirrels. At Curate, we recommend a two-week contract hiring timeline—because talent is off the market so quickly—and that includes quick feedback on resumes and interviews and fast, competitive offers.

“That may seem fast-paced,” Panah says, “But we do the heavy lifting of vetting and screening the candidates beforehand, so that timeline doesn’t compromise the quality of the candidate; it ensures that they know you are committed and confident in them for the role.”

Remember: candidates likely have offers on the table or other interviews lined up. So it’s key to make the hiring process quick, thoughtful, and seamless for all involved.

Want someone else to take the lead with your staffing shortage? Curate Partners can help.

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Initiation, Strategic Vision & CX - HCD