Happening Now

A Debacle, But Not a Conspiracy

August 19, 2022

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Travel this summer has been bad, everywhere and with every travel mode – road, air, and yes, rail.

Consider this announcement from the FAA over the weekend: “Due to the availability of staff tonight, the FAA must reduce the flow of aircraft in certain airspace serving New York City to maintain safety. Departure and arrival delays this evening could approach two hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport - JFK, LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport - EWR airports. Passengers should prepare for delays, and monitor https://www.fly.faa.gov for updates. Please check with your airline for information about specific flights.”

FAA was telling passengers they didn't have enough air traffic controllers to keep flights flowing smoothly into one of the world’s biggest air-travel hubs. The median – median! – pay for an air-traffic controller is $127,000. This is not an instance in which a hike above the minimum wage is needed to spur employment.

Earlier this month, Australian flag carrier Qantas asked for as many as 100 senior executives to give up their jobs for three months to work as baggage handlers, because they don’t have enough staff to check bags and get them on and off planes. They’d work anywhere from three to five four- or six-hour shifts, says Qantas Chief Operating Officer Colin Hughes.

This week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg essentially told U.S. airlines they need to invent, and quickly, new and better ways of taking care of customers affected by record levels of delays and cancellations. If they don’t, DOT says it will turn to a rulemaking to impose new customer-service rules on the airlines. Our conversations with DOT suggest that customer-service is top-of-mind for all modes, not just airlines.

Which gets us to Amtrak, which has been suffering its own summer of woe. Last week, and on a few other occasions this summer, I posted here to share a taste of the dozens of complaints from Amtrak long-distance passengers about last-minute cancellations affecting trips which were, in some cases, booked and paid for as long as ten months ago.

The root cause is not sabotage or nefarious conspiracies. The root cause is a shortage of mechanical department employees needed to maintain and turn what little equipment Amtrak has for these routes during the peak summer demand period. It’s a perfect storm, and when coaches and sleeping cars become unavailable, Amtrak winds up dropping the car from the consist. And we saw that happen a bunch of times again this week.

It doesn't matter that we told them as early as October 2020 that furloughing staff would make it hard to put things back together. We have to address the problem as it stands today. Looking backward and clucking "I told you so" will not hire staff, fix coaches and sleepers, or build trains.

Amtrak said this week that it is 4,000 employees short, and doing its best to hire. In a meeting with Amtrak yesterday, I learned that the railroad is still hiring at the fastest pace ever in its history. But people are leaving quickly, too. How many Amtrak employees have you talked to in recent years who tell you they have 35, 38, or even 40 years working on the railroad? I’ve met many dozens of them, and having held on through the pandemic they’ve now decided it’s time to step aside. And they’re doing that.

Moreover, they’re still having a hard time hiring fully qualified employees. Some new hires are, sadly, still flunking drug tests or even failing to demonstrate that they have basic skills needed to do any job – reading manuals, doing simple arithmetic. This makes the problem even harder to solve.

On the Mechanical side, even outsourcing to maintenance providers is no longer an option. That’s because the outside shops don’t have enough employees, either. It’s true in rail, and it’s also true in aviation, with aircraft and engine overhauls falling behind the curve due to lack of staff.

What I said last year, last month, and last week, is still true: Staffing and mechanical issues may make some of this inevitable, but we’re still hearing in way too many instances that passengers affected by these issues are being treated very poorly. Freight-train interference and bad weather are things that are out of Amtrak’s control. But poorly handled service cancellations are self-inflicted wounds. Refunds, rebooking, and proactive steps to address the issues should be the norm. Too often, we’re hearing that they are not.

We are sharing these and other stories with the right people, people who can make a difference to individual passengers. One reason we launched our survey last week was to gather those stories. It’s not your typical survey with multiple-choice questions. It’s mostly open fields, where you are free to type in your story, your experience, and your treatment. That’s by design. We did it that way so that we can package up all of these stories to present them to Amtrak, to Congress, and to regulators.

But as I said before, if you don’t share your story with us, we can’t share it with decisionmakers. We’ve had hundreds of responses since last week, and I’m grateful for that. But if I’m being honest? It’s not enough. We need to hear from A LOT more of you. Dining or observation car taken off? Faulty equipment during the trip? Dirty windows and exterior? Toilets? Worse? Thanks to your support and participation in previous surveys, we have been able to take the passenger's voice straight to Congress and Amtrak executives. And we can do it again. But we can’t do it without you.

Go here to complete this important service-quality questionnaire! Do it now, while you’re thinking about it. Help us get this done for everyone who relies on trains!