By Hemal Gosai
Opinion: Spectre of Meltdowns Looms Over Holiday Travel
More so than usual, airlines in the U.S. need to brace for the upcoming holiday season this year. After what was essentially a muted holiday season last year, the seams have burst and flyers are getting back to the skies in droves for the holidays. People are eager to see their loved ones for the holidays and are paying for airfare at or near pre-pandemic fares.
Normally airlines can handle the surge, but this time around, some airlines are less than prepared for this holiday season due to the thing that everyone seems to blame for everything these days, Covid-19. The pandemic pummeled the industry last year and caused unforeseen damage.
Several airlines in the United States have been plagued with staffing issues due to Covid-19, resulting in thousands of flights being canceled in short amounts of time causing operational meltdowns stranding tens of thousands of passengers. The staffing issues appear to be impacting both flight attendants and pilots, both groups are necessary to get planes off the ground.
Airlines are trying to get staffing back up by recruiting more staff, but that takes time. A second strategy is to offer existing staff large amounts of incentive pay to work during the holiday season.
Southwest Airlines is offering staff frequent flyer points worth over $1,400 if they meet attendance goals over the holidays. Pilots are being offered a minimum of time-and-a-half for peak holiday trips and double pay for picking up open flights.
American Airlines is offering their flight attendants 50% higher pay for working holiday trips and up to triple pay for those flights if they also meet attendance goals over the season. Pilots are being offered a similar incentive — 150% pay for all flights over peak holiday days and 200% pay for pilots who pick up trips. Positive space travel was also offered guaranteeing pilots a seat on flights to travel to their base.
This strategy has seen mixed results with the American Airlines pilots’ union soundly rejecting the additional pay offer, instead preferring the airline sort out its contract with the pilots instead. The Southwest flight attendants’ union said the holiday incentives were insufficient, the Southwest pilots’ union reached an agreement on the incentive offerings.
Tens of thousands of Americans have had their travel plans disrupted over the past few months over the course of numerous operational meltdowns. There’s a chance all of this will happen again, ruining people’s holidays.
The irony here is that American taxpayers have given billions of dollars to airlines to prevent this. Last year airline CEOs paraded themselves up and down Washington D.C. telling lawmakers that they needed billions in bailout money to keep staff on payroll. They and other airline interest groups, like unions, touted the importance of the aviation industry and the need to keep staff on payroll to be “ready” when travel returned.
Airlines pilfered a tidy sum of $79 billion from the American taxpayer to avoid the exact situation they are subjecting travelers too. Airlines took billions of dollars to keep people on payroll, yet airlines still found ways to remove people from payroll through early retirements and voluntary separations. Nearly 400 customer service representatives at Southwest Airlines took voluntary separation packages. A quarter of the American Airlines reservations team elected to leave. Delta Air Line’s call staffing was allegedly down 50%.
There are rumors that resistance to vaccine mandates are also creating disruptions with employees calling in sick as a form of protest. This further stretches already stretched staffing.
American travelers have every right to be outraged at the past operational meltdowns and the uncertainty around operational reliability for the holiday season, we did pay through the nose to ensure “readiness” after all. All of this could’ve been avoided if airlines did what we paid them billions of dollars to do.