Airlines staff up for holiday onslaught

Airlines are gearing up for the busiest weekend of travel since the start of the pandemic, hoping to avoid a repeat of recent flight delays and cancellations that disrupted travel plans earlier this year. 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said Wednesday that it expects to screen about 20 million passengers during the Thanksgiving holiday, nearly reaching pre-pandemic levels. Another analysis from Adobe Digital Insights found that domestic flight bookings for Thanksgiving were up 3.2 percent over the same period in 2019. 

The surge in demand presents a key test for major carriers, whose operations have been disrupted by staffing shortages, technical issues and unruly passengers during this year’s busiest travel weekends.

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“We’re concerned about the holidays,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots. “If the skies are clear and the weather is kind, chances are things will go smoothly. But as we’ve seen from American Airlines, the management team has not been prepared to recover from weather events.”

American Airlines canceled nearly 2,000 flights over Halloween weekend because the company couldn’t find enough crew members to overcome weather issues. That’s after it canceled hundreds of flights over Father’s Day weekend due to staff shortages.

The airline aims to mitigate staffing issues by hiring 4,000 new employees for the holidays and bringing back 1,800 flight attendants from leave this month. American Airlines is also offering flight attendants a 50 percent pay bump for working holiday trips. The pilots union rejected the airline’s offer of double pay for holiday trips, arguing that the carrier must make permanent changes to its scheduling and IT system to prevent further disruptions.

Southwest Airlines has also been ravaged by recent service meltdowns stemming from staff shortages and weather events, canceling more than 2,000 flights around Columbus Day weekend and thousands more over Halloween weekend. 

A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said that the company reduced its number of flights in November and December “to align holiday operations with expected staffing” and is on track to hire 5,000 new employees before the end of the year.

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A surge of unruly airline passengers has also led to flight delays and discouraged flight attendants from working extra hours, particularly during the holidays, when passengers are more likely to be irritated by long lines or cancellations. The Federal Aviation Administration has investigated nearly 1,000 reports of unruly passengers this year, a sixfold increase from 2019.

“The hostile work environment sometimes caused by frustration with flight cancellations and delays is a deterrent to workers picking up additional hours or trips,” Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson told a House Homeland Security Committee panel Tuesday.

“One feeds off the other and increases the problem.”

The airline industry’s workforce shortage stemmed from carriers’ decisions to furlough workers when the pandemic all but shut down air travel. Many of their employees retired early or left for other jobs, and airlines have struggled to replace them in a tight labor market. 

“As they deploy additional capacity to meet the expected strong holiday demand, carriers have been hiring and training new employees, recalling employees that had taken voluntary leave, putting new aircraft into service and returning to service aircraft that had been put in storage during the pandemic,” said a spokesperson for Airlines for America, the industry’s top trade group. 

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Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellReal relief from high gas prices GOP resistance to Biden FCC nominee could endanger board's Democratic majority Scott says he will block nominees until Biden officials testify on supply chain crisis MORE (D-Wash.) plans to host a hearing next month with airline CEOs examining why they experienced worker shortages despite receiving $54 billion in federal aid to keep their employees on the payroll. 

Lawmakers and labor unions criticized airlines and airports for working with contractors that laid off tens of thousands of industry workers at the onset of the pandemic. Those contractors are facing walkouts this week from Texas and Florida airport workers — such as wheelchair attendants and cabin cleaners — who are demanding better wages and benefits.

“There is no labor shortage, there is a respect for people working for a living shortage,” said Teresa McClatchie, an escalator guard at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, according to a release from the Service Employees International Union. 

Other potential staffing problems are out of airlines’ control. 

Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the House Homeland Security Committee panel to expect long lines over the holidays, as TSA workers have been quitting over difficult working conditions. 

He also noted that TSA employees, along with all other federal workers, must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 22, a deadline that could prompt some workers to leave the agency. The TSA said last month that just 60 percent of its workforce is vaccinated.

TSA spokesperson Carter Langston said in a statement that the “compliance rate is very high” but noted that the agency is still collecting vaccination data and cannot share that information yet.

“We are prepared ... we’ve seen quite a significant increase in the number of our officers who are vaccinated, and I’m very confident that there will be no impact for Thanksgiving,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday.