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Thanksgiving air travel will suck this year

Flying during the holidays is always chaotic, but it might be messier this year.

A line of passengers with suitcases wait at O’Hare International Airport.
Holiday fliers should expect the short end of the travel stick: crowds, long security lines, packed planes, and an overall meh flying experience.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The airlines have spent 2021 gearing up for the holidays. It is the travel industry’s season finale, an end-of-year opportunity to significantly recover from the pandemic-induced travel slump. Millions of Americans are expected to fly at near pre-pandemic rates this Thanksgiving, and international travel restrictions have been lifted.

But recovery, unfortunately, is not as simple as flipping a switch. It’s a rocky, turbulent phase for an industry scrambling to hire workers to handle the holiday travel surge after a year of reduced flights and limited operations.

The staffing shortages plaguing airlines and airports aren’t exactly new. It was a problem set into motion by industry-wide layoffs in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Airlines, desperate to cut overhead expenses, urged employees to voluntarily quit their jobs, offering early retirement deals and cash severance. Since June, though, airports have struggled to staff back up on all kinds of workers, from TSA agents to concession-stand workers. Airlines, too, are operating with a shortage of pilots, flight attendants, and ground crew members. In the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, American and Southwest Airlines had to cancel and delay hundreds of flights across the country, due in part to inclement weather events. These operational meltdowns were triggered by storms but exacerbated by the lack of available pilots and flight attendants.

The dearth of airline and airport workers has had a domino effect on the industry. And its effects will likely culminate during the busiest travel time of the year. The airlines have no choice but to recruit more workers to keep up with demand.

“No one expected travel to rebound as quickly as it did,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the president of Atmosphere Research Group. “That rebound was a double-edged sword. It’s great that people are traveling again, but the airlines were caught with their pants down. They had to bring grounded planes back into service. They had to bring back employees.”

The nightmarish turn of events is bad news for eager travelers. Fares are up (the cost of jet fuel has increased), middle seats are full again, and airlines are no longer as flexible with their booking policies. Holiday fliers should expect the short end of the travel stick: crowds, long security lines, packed planes, poor customer service, and an overall meh flying experience, unless they can afford first-class treatment. Travel experts suggest booking trips with few to no connecting flights if possible, and to select airlines with a larger flight network, in case of cancellations.

Airline bookings for the week of Thanksgiving have exceeded pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Adobe Digital Economy Index, which is a good sign for the industry. Yet it’s possible airlines may be adding more flights than they can handle to keep up with demand, especially when winter weather is notoriously unpredictable.

“It’s one thing to have a meltdown at the end of October,” FlightAware’s Kathleen Bangs told NPR. “But it’s another thing completely if you ruin somebody’s Thanksgiving or Christmas or make them miss it altogether. That is on a whole other level.”

In September, when the Biden administration announced its workplace vaccine mandate for federal contractors (which includes airlines), some carriers were at risk of laying off unvaccinated workers in early December, decimating their already-limited staff before the end-of-year travel rush. The mandate, however, was pushed back until January 18, which means airlines and airports won’t have to worry about getting all their workers vaccinated until after the new year.

“We basically kicked the can down the road,” Harteveldt said. “Just about every airline in the country is a federal contractor. This might not be so much of an issue for Delta and United, whose workers are, for the most part, vaccinated. It’s more of a concern for Southwest and American.”

In recent months, it seems that among the major carriers, Delta and United have experienced fewer unexpected slowdowns compared to American and Southwest. Those two carriers have received fire for canceling and delaying hundreds of flights on holiday weekends — Southwest on Indigenous People’s Day, American on Halloween. The federal workplace vaccine requirement has further sent them scrambling: CNBC reported in October that executives of both carriers are trying to assure employees of their job security while also urging them to apply for vaccine exemptions if they qualify.

The reason for all these operational struggles? Depending on whether you ask the carriers or the workers themselves, it varies from staffing shortages to overall mismanagement. The solution is not as simple as hiring more people, which workers argue is only a stopgap for industry-wide issues. Like the restaurant and retail industries, airlines are grappling with the fallout from the “great resignation,” and they have a history of offering low starting wages and few bonuses compared to other jobs. (In August, for example, Southwest Airlines raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, which will boost the salaries of about 7,000 existing employees. This wage floor, however, does not apply to contracted airline workers.)

Plus, potential workers have to undergo background checks and various layers of screenings and trainings before they can start on the job. Some workers believe that it’s not about the number of staff available, according to the New York Times, but how they are deployed by the airlines.

It hasn’t helped that passengers are acting up at significantly higher rates than before; in some cases, they’ve verbally or physically abused flight attendants. Since January, the Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 5,000 reports of unruly passengers; 991 of those 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 the staffing issues vary from airline to airline and from city to city. On-the-ground airport workers, for example, are often hired by private contractors and aren’t characterized as airline employees, so they’re exempt from the hourly wage increases airlines have publicized. These contracted workers have spent months protesting for better wages and benefits.

Meanwhile, American is in the middle of contract negotiations with its pilot union. In an effort to avoid widespread delays and cancellations going into the holiday season, American offered to pay pilots as much as double their wages for holiday trips. The union declined, and instead pushed the carrier to implement more permanent changes to its schedules. According to the Dallas Morning News’s Kyle Arnold, both the pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions have complained of difficulties securing lodging, food, and transportation during summer trips. They’ve also claimed that American’s scheduling strategy “puts too many pilots on standby, nearly double the industry average,” Arnold reported.

Southwest’s pilots’ union released a similar statement after the airline’s operational meltdown in October. “What was a minor temporary event for other carriers devastated Southwest Airlines because our operation has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure,” wrote Casey Murray, the union’s president. “Our operation and our frontline employees have endured continuous and unending disruptions since the first time our airline made headlines in early June due to widespread IT failures.”

It’s likely that some airlines have bitten off more than they can chew over the past year. Texas Monthly’s Joe Pappalardo reported that Southwest “undertook the most aggressive single-year expansion in its fifty-year history” by adding 17 new destinations in 2020. American similarly broadened its domestic network to make up for revenue losses from grounded international flights. As a result, these carriers now cover more ground but have fewer pilots and crew members to fly the added routes.

As I’ve previously reported, it isn’t quite accurate to claim that these issues — which undoubtedly affect passengers — are a result of a labor shortage without contextualizing the airline industry’s working conditions and standards:

A shortage does little to acknowledge the fluctuations in work consistency and lack of financial security that many have contended with. The industry has long relied on an understaffed and underpaid workforce, with many clocking in on the front lines (which, again, are unusually stressful these days).

These managerial and operational problems, when combined with unexpected weather events or other crises, can trigger a logistical domino effect of flight cancellations and delays across the country. The influx of travelers during the holiday season could spell trouble for the carriers, especially if winter storms are on the horizon. Still, experts think travel across the board will be chaotic in the coming months.

“If you’re driving, roads and highways will be packed. So will hotels,” said Harteveldt, the travel analyst. At least one thing is for certain: Travel is back, and it probably won’t taper off anytime soon.