It’s safe to say that for airlines, 2022 hasn’t been off to a flying start. The normally lucrative holiday period was marred by a series of winter storms, as well as staff shortages caused by the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which forced carriers to cancel over 20,000 flights in the run-up to New Year.
Then, this week, another storm buffeted the East Coast, requiring a further 2,8000 flights to be cancelled for safety reasons. At American Airlines’ hub of Charlotte Douglas Airport in North Carolina, some 95% of flights scheduled for Sunday had to be cancelled.
As if this weren’t enough, concerns over new 5G towers affecting aircraft equipment led to international carriers such as Emirates and Air India suspending their routes to major U.S. airports near where the towers were being installed.
Now, however, it really does seem like the worst is behind us. The weather has calmed and, after a serious spike, the number of Covid cases reported in the U.S. is once again dropping. Meanwhile, telecoms companies AT&T and Verizon, who had been due to install their 5G masts this week, agreed to delay their rollout on Wednesday, which airlines say will give them enough time to sort out any potential safety issues.
It’s hard to blame airlines for the chaos of the past few weeks. The weather is out of everyone’s hands while the sudden spike in Omicron cases last month was too much for even the best prepared companies to handle. At one point, Delta Airlines reported that one in eight of their staff members were testing positive for the virus. Meanwhile, at United, nearly 5% of staff were unwell during the festive period. The impact of this was felt particularly badly by carriers like Spirit and American Airlines, who had furloughed workers during the early months of the pandemic and were already struggling by the summer to properly staff their flights.
Nevertheless, the show must go on and some airlines are predicting a serious rebound, spurred on by Americans who are desperate to travel after being stuck at home for so long. Earlier this month, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told CNN “The next four to six weeks are going to be difficult… [but] “What we do see in the booking data is President’s weekend forward looks really robust.” He added, “People are ready to travel”.
Delta is now predicting a return to profitability by the second quarter of 2022 – much earlier than either United or American Airlines. This is despite the Atlanta-based airline spending some $60-70 million in extra pay for flight crew to pick up open shifts and alleviate the worst of the winter cancellations.
Central to Delta’s preparations for a travel rebound is a massive hiring spree. After employing some 9,000 new staff in 2021, the airline is targeting between 3,000 and 5,000 new joiners by the end of this year.
In addition, the notoriously picky employer has scrapped its requirement for new pilots to have a four-year college degree – bringing it in line with competitors such as American Airlines and United. In a statement, Delta explained, “While we feel as strongly as ever about the importance of education, there are highly qualified candidates – people who we would want to welcome to our Delta family – who have gained more than the equivalent of a college education through years of life and leadership experience.”
Of course other airlines will also be planning to take on more staff this year, making the race to cash in on the travel rebound all the more competitive. One way budget carrier Breeze Airways is looking to gain the edge is by hiring pilots from Australia via the E-3 visa program for skilled applicants. So far it seems to be working, with Breeze attracting 123 applicants from Down Under already.
All in all, airlines are desperately hoping that fate doesn’t throw another curve ball at them as they hurry to get their houses in order. But with strong staff numbers and a forward-thinking approach, they’ll be well placed to profit when normality does finally return.