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Are Airlines Ready for Thanksgiving Travel?

Autumn has proven to be a turbulent time for airlines, not to mention their passengers.

The difficulties faced in October are well documented and publicized at this point, but here are the headline numbers: American Airlines were forced to cancel nearly 2000 flights over Halloween, due to not being able to find enough crew to manage inclement weather complications. This comes after hundreds of flights were cancelled by the airline over Father’s Day back in June.

Southwest also suffered from this combination of staff shortages and unfavorable weather, cancelling hundreds of flights over Columbus Day weekend in mid-October, before having to repeat the same ‘trick’ over Halloween.

The natural question these alarming statistics poses is what sort of shape are these airlines in ahead of the next major holiday, which happens to be Thanksgiving, one of the busiest times of year for travel in the US.

Any hope carriers might harbor that the customary manic migration around the country might be mitigated by the pandemic this year don’t appear likely: the 26th to the 30th November is expected to be the busiest weekend of travel since the pandemic began. The TSA expects to screen about 20 million passengers, close to pre-pandemic levels, whereas Adobe Digital Insights actually predicts numbers to be 3.2% higher than in 2019.

Christie Hudson, representative for Expedia Group Inc., confirmed that little is going to get in the way of US travellers going to see their loved ones this Thanksgiving.

“People aren’t going to be deterred by the possibilities of storms and delays. The pent-up demand is a huge factor.”

This kind of a demand is likely to represent a test for all major airlines, who have seen their operations cut back and disrupted as much as any other industry over the past couple of years. Drastic cuts were deemed necessary, including encouraging staff into early retirement or placing them on extended leave, to survive the pandemic, but now airlines are struggling to get back up to speed to cope with demand.

That’s not to say they’re not trying. American has responded to its Halloween disaster by hiring 4,000 new employees and calling back a further 1,800 from leave. Similarly, Southwest spokesperson Dan Landson claimed earlier this week that the carrier is on track to hire 5,000 new employees by the end of the year.

American also made headlines earlier this month by offering to pay pilots up to 50% extra on top of their normal salary provided they commit to working through the holiday. This offer was rejected by the Allied Pilots Association, the union for American Airlines pilots, who argued that a permanent overhaul of the way the airline schedules their flights was what was really needed.

APA spokesperson Dennis Tajer followed up this episode by stating, “We’re concerned about the holidays.”

“This recovery [from the pandemic] has just pulled back the covers on the infrastructure problems at American Airlines. We know where the solutions are – they probably have solutions – but they are not even willing to talk about them,” he continued.

Tajer’s comments and the case of American Airlines is not an isolated incident, but an example of the growing picture of disillusionment within the airline industry itself. A great deal of the staff placed on temporary leave last year have since gone on to leave the industry altogether, hence why airlines have had to hire so many new workers.

The term labor-shortage has recurred in the media lately in connection with airlines’ preparedness for the holiday season, but perhaps this is an over-simplification of a problem with the way airlines have tried to overstretch themselves, dating back before the pandemic.

We can hope this isn’t the case, and that carriers are starting to get used to the travel demands of pre-pandemic levels again. This is the view of many industry titans, including American COO David Seymour, who described the Halloween weekend as a “brief irregular ops period” and said that “on the schedule front, we’ve ensured that November and December are built to meet customer demand and that they are fully supportable by our staffing.”

Mike Malik, CEO at aviation data firm Cirium, lent credence to this view, saying, “the hits that have been taken in the last month or so, the airlines have adjusted for that, and I think they are very much geared up for Thanksgiving.”

One way or the other, we will find out for certain soon enough. In the words of Hudson, the public’s mentality towards travel this weekend is “screw it, I’m going.” The airlines will have to just find a way to take them.

Photo: New York Post

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