Airlines Expect Booming Travel Ahead. Can They Keep Up?

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In all, American has expanded its work force by 12,000 employees, or 10 percent, since last summer. Delta said last week that it had added about 15,000 workers since the start of last year. United has hired 6,000 this year.

But as of February, none of the major carriers had returned to prepandemic employment levels, according to federal data. Industrywide, airlines employed more than 739,000 part-time or full-time workers in February, down about 2 percent from the same month in 2020. And airlines may struggle to staff up further.

“It’s a competitive market out there,” said Peter McNally, a vice president who oversees research on the industrials, materials and energy industries at Third Bridge, a consulting firm. “The airlines are forced to compete in a broader economy.”

Airlines face other challenges, too, including rising fuel prices.

American expects fuel prices in the second quarter to be about 30 percent higher than in the first, while United and Delta have said prices could rise as much as 20 percent. Last week, the price of jet fuel in North America was 20 percent higher than it was a month earlier and up 141 percent from a year ago, according to the Platts Jet Fuel Price Index.

Despite the challenges, the industry remains broadly optimistic, largely because skyrocketing fares do not seem to have curbed the appetite for travel.

For the second quarter of this year, American expects revenue to be about 6 to 8 percent higher than in the same quarter of 2019 — even though it expects capacity to be down 6 to 8 percent from the 2019 quarter.

Airlines say customers aren’t just willing to pay higher fares — many are also shelling out even more money for premium upgrades like seats with more legroom.