Holiday travel is always a nightmare, but this year will be even worse

Major US airlines are operating with fewer pilots and flight attendants than before the pandemic. With bookings by domestic airlines almost returning to normal, airlines are trying to do more with less this holiday season.

Service failure in October at Southwest Airlines and American demonstrate what happens when schedules are disrupted without the necessary staffing levels to quickly recover from canceled flights. Problems occurred quickly, leading to hundreds of additional cancellations.

“I think all airlines are stretched out,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “A major blizzard or event can cause lengthy delays and cancellations.”

And anyone with a flight cancellation will have a hard time finding an alternative way to get where they’re going.

“If there’s a problem, it’s going to be very difficult to readjust people whose flights have been canceled,” said Raymond James aviation analyst Savi Syth.

Shortage of personnel

Airlines that have experienced service disruptions recently admit they don’t have enough staff to deal with issues.

Bob Jordan, who will become CEO of Southwest early next year, told investors last month that weather and air traffic control problems had caused “a significant number of crews and aircraft to lose position and then take several days to recover.”

“We have inconvenienced thousands of customers and we have challenged our excellent employees,” he said. “And I just want to apologize to both our customers and our employees.”

Jordan said Southwest is working on additional pruning to its schedule to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Why is flying so bad and about to get worse

With air traffic largely shut down in the early months of the pandemic, all airlines used early retirement and buyback packages to reduce staff voluntarily. Right now, it’s all in disarray in terms of personnel, but it takes time to hire, train and certify pilots and flight attendants, so much of the current hiring is being done towards next summer’s tourist season – not this year’s fall and winter – Syth said.

All airlines said they were prepared to deal with disruptions caused by weather or other issues such as air traffic control.

David Seymour, CEO of American, said: “To make sure to provide certainty for both our customers and team members, we are doubling down on our scheduling and staffing efforts. ,” said David Seymour, the airline’s CEO. “In terms of schedules, we’ve made sure that our November and December are built to meet the needs of our customers, and that our staff is fully able to support them.”

But Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, a union of American pilots and an active pilot, said he was concerned that the US was stretching its payroll too thin.

“We want to do these flights. But the evidence from earlier this year shows what happens when things don’t go as planned,” he said. “They’re building the schedule to accommodate the maximum number of flights possible, and it doesn’t offer flexibility when things go wrong. The plane doesn’t fly as hoped.”

According to Murray, Southwest is trying to operate its current schedule with about 15 percent fewer pilots than it did before the pandemic, although the number of flights has not been cut nearly as much. That leaves much less resilience when problems occur.

Fewer flights

Overall, the number of domestic flights scheduled from the weekend before to after New Year’s Eve fell 12% year-on-year, according to data from Cirium, an aviation data tracking service.

Of the four major US airlines that handle about 80% of air traffic, Southwest and American have the busiest schedules compared to their pre-pandemic levels. Flights are down just 10% in Southwest and 9% in American, while Delta and United are both down more than 13% from 2019.

United and Delta executives say their more limited schedules will allow them to avoid the service problems experienced at Southwest and American earlier this fall.

“If we want to be bigger than we are, we really can’t. We can get a little bigger, maybe, but not much bigger without the risk of performance issues. works as you have seen in some [the] Delta president Glen Hauenstein told investors last month.

“Our North Star in this recovery is about making sure we do the right thing for our customers, and if that means sacrificing some possible short-term profits to ensure reliable operation trust, so be it,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a letter to customers explaining the airline’s reduced schedule.

Murray, head of the Southwest pilots union, said his airline had made operational changes since a service crash in October caused 2,000 flights to be canceled over the weekend and dozens more. Thousands of passengers were stranded.

“I don’t care as much as during the summer,” he said.


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