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Pilot shortages add to US travel chaos as airlines struggle to meet demand

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<span>Photograph: David Koenig/AP</span>
Photograph: David Koenig/AP

The chaos afflicting American travel has continued as a shortage of pilots became the latest flashpoint for anger against the embattled airline industry.

On Tuesday, more than 1,300 Southwest airline pilots picketed in Dallas, Texas, amid stalled contract negotiations. American Airlines, which flies to more than 350 destinations, also blamed pilot shortages for its decision to stop operations in three cities – Ithaca and Islip, both in New York, and Toledo in Ohio – after 7 September. The airline is the the only major one providing service out of Toledo.

Related: ‘We’re just robots’: US airline workers stranded amid staff shortages

“In response to the regional pilot shortage affecting the airline industry, American Airlines has made the difficult decision to end service,” a spokeswoman, Andrea Koos, said in a statement.

Following the cancellation or delay of approximately 14,000 flights in the US on Friday and Saturday, the pilot shortages are exacerbating the airlines’ existing struggle to cope with the vast number of daily travelers.

Many airlines have blamed the shortage and general staffing issues on increased travel demands following the easing of pandemic restrictions and the busy summer holiday season.

Airline workers, however, counter that low wages and poor conditions are to blame. Pilots say that near-daily flight reassignments have added stress to their jobs, exacerbating existing fatigue.

The picketing in Dallas is over related issues, said Capt Casey A Murray, a pilot and the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, who told NBC News that almost 30% of pilots at Southwest are reassigned daily, sometimes on longer flights that leave them feeling overwhelmed.

“If you’re going to continue to misuse us, you’re going to continue to be short of staffing,” he said.

The union, which represents 8,300 pilots, said that “pilot fatigue rates have reached an all-time high” amid ongoing scheduling issues, poor pay rates and other concerns.

“The Pilots of Southwest have been in contract negotiations with the company for more two years with no meaningful movement toward a new contract,” said the union in a statement to NBC News.

A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines commented on the picketing. “We’re aware that some off-duty pilots are participating in informational picketing today,” Christopher Perry told the Dallas Morning News.

“Southwest Airlines respects the rights of our employees to express their opinions, and we do not anticipate any disruption in service as a result of this single demonstration.”

Pilots at Delta Air Lines, represented by the Airline Pilots Association, wrote an open letter to Delta customers last Tuesday about ongoing flight cancellations and delays. It accused Delta management of scheduling more flights than available pilots. Aviators were working record amounts of overtime as a result, it said.

Delta pilots had been protesting since May outside Delta hubs in several major cities over fatigue and poor scheduling.

“Our pilots are tired and fatigued,” Capt Evan Baach told the Guardian in a previous interview. “Our pilots are working record amounts of overtime, we’re working longer days, we have shorter nights in between our duty periods. We want the company to match their words with action and make changes to the pilot schedules.”

The number of airplane pilots and engineers decreased by almost 4% over two years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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