Holiday season

EXPLAINER: Why has the holiday season been such a nightmare?

A forecast for better weather means the worst could finally be over for tens of thousands of air travelers who have been grounded by flight cancellations that exploded over New Years weekend.

January generally means fewer people traveling, and this will be even more true in 2022, as many business travelers have not returned to the skies.

Here’s a look at the factors that caused the thefts for so many during the holiday season, and what the next few weeks are likely to bring.

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WHAT HAPPENED?

Airlines were prohibited from laying off employees as a condition of receiving $ 54 billion in federal pandemic assistance from taxpayers. But that didn’t stop them from encouraging tens of thousands of workers to quit or take long-term leave after the pandemic torpedoed travel in 2020.

Airlines that faced a shortage of pilots, flight attendants and other workers this summer and last fall – think Southwest, American, Spirit and Allegiant – thought they had the time to build up your muscles for the winter holidays. They continued to hire.

That wasn’t enough, however, when the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 struck, knocking out flight crews just as vacation crowds started to pack airports. United and Delta were among the first to be affected just before Christmas, attributing the canceled flights to lack of crew due to the outbreak of the virus.

Then snowstorms and high winds hit the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, the Midwest, and finally the Mid-Atlantic region, creating waves of cancellations that looked like falling dominoes.

The global spread of omicron meant widespread flight cancellations were not limited to U.S. airlines in Europe, and Australia has reported similar crew shortage issues.

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WHEN WILL THINGS IMPROVE?

Judging by the early numbers, Tuesday could turn out to be the turning point. After more than 3,200 cancellations of flights in the United States on Monday, the number for Tuesday had fallen to 1,400 by noon – better, although still very high. A storm that crippled Reagan National Airport outside Washington, DC and Baltimore / Washington International the day before continued, although there were residual cancellations because planes were unable to enter at these airports earlier.

Additionally, airline crews may return to work sooner after catching the coronavirus. Last week, U.S. health officials changed their guidelines and cut by half – to five days – the time they recommend people self-quarantine if they catch the virus but have no symptoms. Delta and JetBlue had been pushing for the change, though the largest flight attendant union criticized the move, saying it compromised the health of cabin crew.

On the negative side, new cases of COVID-19 continue to multiply in the United States, Canada, Australia and much of Europe. The seven-day moving average of daily new cases in the United States has more than tripled in the past two weeks, to 480,000 on Monday, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

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SHOULD AIRLINES HAVE MORE STAFF?

Although Congress has banned airlines from laying off workers, lawmakers have done nothing to prevent the large-scale staff cuts airlines have made by causing people to quit after early travel collapse from 2020.

This left airlines understaffed when travel resumed faster than expected in the summer of 2021. It takes time to retrain pilots and bring them back from long-term leave. Compounding the labor shortage, airlines like Southwest and American have added flights to generate more revenue.

Kurt Ebenhoch, airline consumer advocate and former airline employee, said travelers would still see canceled flights even if carriers avoided those mistakes, “but not in such high numbers.”

“Why have Southwest, American and Spirit had such terrible operational problems and Delta, United and others not? Said Ebenhoch. “The difference was in the management decisions…. (C) carriers that were more aggressive in resuming their schedules, approaching pre-COVID capacity faster and leaving little room for error in their schedules experienced more operational issues, and their customers suffered as a result. . “

Airlines are trying to match staffing levels with passenger numbers, and travel has not fully recovered as the pandemic continues. In December, the number of people passing through airport checkpoints in the United States was 16% lower than in the same month of 2019.

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IS THIS RACE OF CANCELLATIONS UNUSUAL?

Bad weather – from winter blizzards to summer thunderstorms – can always ruin air travel. The same goes for technology failures and other issues. And that risk increases during the holidays, when more people are flying. The holiday season at the end of 2013 was particularly painful for travelers, with airlines canceling around 10,000 flights – and that was long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.

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HAVE THE AIRLINES PREVENT THIS?

Even industry critics are giving the airlines a bit of slack, noting that the extent and speed of omicron’s spread has come as a shock to just about everyone. Other industries have also been affected by workers contracting the virus and needing to self-isolate.

Paul Hudson, chairman of consumer advocacy group FlyersRights.org, said airlines should have planned better and the Federal Department of Transport should have required airlines to have stocks of people and equipment ready , “but the high infection rate of the omicron variant is mainly to blame in the disruptions of the holiday season.”

Airlines are hiring. According to the latest figures from the Department of Transportation, US passenger airlines employed the equivalent of about 409,000 full-time workers in October. That was down almost 10% from the same month in 2019, before the pandemic, but up more than 43,000 jobs, or 12%, from October 2020.


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