Thanksgiving trip will be a mess this year with crowds and potential flight delays
Airlines spent 2021 preparing for the holidays. This is the season finale for the travel industry, a year-end opportunity to significantly recover from the pandemic-induced travel crisis. Millions of Americans are expected to fly at rates close to pre-pandemic on Thanksgiving, and international travel restrictions have been lifted.
But recovery, unfortunately, is not as simple as flipping a switch. It’s a difficult and turbulent phase for an industry scrambling to hire workers to handle the wave of vacation travel after a year of reduced flights and limited operations.
The staff shortages plaguing airlines and airports are not exactly new. It was a problem sparked by layoffs across the industry in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Airlines, desperate to cut overheads, have urged employees to voluntarily quit their jobs, offering early retirement offers and cash severance packages. Since June, however, airports have struggled to recruit all kinds of workers, from TSA agents to concession workers. Airlines are also operating with a shortage of pilots, flight attendants and ground crew. In the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, American and Southwest Airlines had to cancel and delay hundreds of flights across the country, in part because of inclement weather. These operational collapses were triggered by storms but exacerbated by the lack of available pilots and flight attendants.
The shortage of airline and airport workers has had a domino effect on the industry. And its effects will likely peak during the busiest travel time of the year. Airlines have no choice but to recruit more workers to meet demand.
âNo one expected travel to rebound as quickly as it did,â said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and chairman of Atmosphere Research Group. âThis rebound was a double-edged sword. It’s good that people are traveling again, but the airlines have been caught with their pants down. They had to put grounded planes back into service. They had to bring back employees.
The nightmarish turn of events is bad news for impatient travelers. Fares are on the rise (the cost of jet fuel has gone up), the middle seats are full again, and airlines are no longer as flexible with their booking policies. Vacation travelers should expect the end of the trip: crowds, long security lines, crowded planes, poor customer service, and an overall flight experience, unless they can afford first-class treatment. Travel experts suggest booking trips with little or no connecting flights if possible, and selecting airlines with a larger flight network, if canceled.
Airline bookings for Thanksgiving week have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, according to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index data, which is a good sign for the industry. Yet, airlines may add more flights than they can handle to meet demand, especially when winter conditions are notoriously unpredictable.
âIt’s one thing to have a meltdown in late October,â FlightAware’s Kathleen Bangs told NPR. âBut it’s a whole different thing if you ruin someone’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or if you miss it altogether. It’s on a whole new level. “
In September, when the Biden administration announced its workplace vaccination mandate for federal contractors (which includes airlines), some carriers were at risk of laying off unvaccinated workers in early December, wiping out their already limited staff before the rush to end-of-year travel. . The mandate has been pushed back to Jan. 18, however, meaning airlines and airports won’t have to worry about getting all their workers vaccinated before the new year.
âWe basically kicked the box on the road,â Harteveldt said. âPretty much all of the airlines across the country are federal contractors. That might not be a problem for Delta and United, whose workers are, for the most part, vaccinated. It’s more of a concern for the Southwest and America.
Long delays and cancellations for passengers traveling with Southwest Airlines. The airline reports that an air traffic management program has been put in place due to the weather conditions causing the flight saves. However, some passengers hear that some employees have quit their jobs. pic.twitter.com/QSpQbglgnc
– Jewell Hillery (@HilleryJewell) 10 October 2021
In recent months, it appears that among the major carriers, Delta and United have experienced fewer unexpected slowdowns compared to American and Southwest. Both of these carriers were fired for canceling and delaying hundreds of flights on holiday weekends – Southwest on Indigenous Peoples Day, American on Halloween Day. The federal workplace vaccine requirement pushed them to scramble again: CNBC reported in October that executives at both carriers were trying to assure employees of their job security while urging them to ask. vaccine exemptions if they were eligible.
The reason for all these operational struggles? Depending on whether you ask the carriers or the workers themselves, it ranges from staff shortages to overall mismanagement. The solution isn’t as simple as hiring more people, which workers say is just a stopgap for industry-wide problems. Like the restaurant and retail industries, airlines are grappling with the fallout from the ‘big resignation’ and they are used to offering low starting salaries and few bonuses compared to others. jobs. (In August, for example, Southwest Airlines increased its minimum wage to $ 15 an hour, which will increase the wages of about 7,000 existing employees. This wage floor, however, does not apply to airline employees. airlines under contract.)
Additionally, potential workers must undergo background checks and various layers of screening and training before they can begin work. Some workers believe it’s not about the number of employees available, according to the New York Times, but how they are deployed by the airlines.
It didn’t help that passengers were operating at significantly higher fares than before; in some cases, they verbally or physically assaulted flight attendants. Since January, the Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 5,000 reports of unruly passengers; 991 of these cases are currently under investigation. The frequency of these incidents has skyrocketed compared to pre-pandemic years: in 2019, the FAA investigated only 146 reports.
The specifics of staffing issues vary from airline to airline and city to city. Airport ground workers, for example, are often hired by private contractors and are not qualified as airline employees, so they are exempt from hourly wage increases advertised by airlines. These contract workers have spent months protesting for better wages and benefits.
Meanwhile, American is negotiating a contract with its pilots union. In order to avoid widespread delays and cancellations before the holiday season, American has offered to pay pilots up to double their salary for holiday travel. The union refused and instead pushed the carrier to make more permanent changes to its schedules. According to Kyle Arnold of the Dallas Morning News, pilots and flight attendant unions have complained about difficulties finding accommodation, food and transportation during summer travel. They also claimed that American’s planning strategy “puts too many pilots on hold, nearly double the industry average,” Arnold reported.
The Southwest Pilots Union issued a similar statement after the airline’s operational collapse in October. âWhat was a minor temporary event for other carriers devastated Southwest Airlines because our operation became fragile and prone to massive failures under the slightest pressure,â wrote Casey Murray, union president. âOur operation and our frontline employees have experienced continuous and endless disruption since our airline first hit the headlines in early June due to widespread IT outages. “
It is likely that some airlines have eaten more than they can chew over the past year. Joe Pappalardo of Texas Monthly reported that Southwest “has embarked on the most aggressive expansion in a single year in its fifty-year history” adding 17 new destinations in 2020. American has also expanded its domestic network to offset losses in income from international ground flights. As a result, these carriers now cover more ground but have fewer pilots and crew to cover the additional routes.
As I pointed out previously, it is not entirely correct to assert that these problems – which undoubtedly affect passengers – are the result of a labor shortage without contextualizing the conditions of employment. Labor and Airline Industry Standards:
A shortage does little to recognize the fluctuations in work consistency and the lack of financial security that many have faced. The industry has long relied on an understaffed and underpaid workforce, many of which are on the front lines (which, again, is exceptionally stressful these days).
These management and operational issues, when combined with unexpected weather events or other crises, can trigger a logistical domino effect of cancellations and delays of flights across the country. The influx of travelers during the holiday season could cause problems for carriers, especially if winter storms are looming on the horizon. Still, experts believe travel across the board will be chaotic in the coming months.
âIf you drive, the roads and highways will be crowded. Hotels too, âsaid Harteveldt, the travel analyst. At least one thing is for sure: The trips are back, and they probably won’t stop anytime soon.