Recent airline meltdowns raise specter of holiday travel woes

Nov 5, 2021

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American Airlines canceled more than 1,900 flights last weekend, the latest in a troubling trend of airline network collapses in recent months.

The airline blamed the cancelations on gusty winds out of its Dallas-Fort Worth hub for starting the episode, saying the weather event forced the airport to slow arrival rates and limit the use of some runways. Coming at the very end of October, that left flight crews bumping up against the maximum hours that they’re allowed or required to work in a given time period.

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With limited staff available and crews and aircraft left out of position, the airline was forced to cancel scores of flights in an effort to get its network back up and running again.

It was the third such episode at a U.S. airline since August, when Spirit Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights over a disastrous week, a systemic collapse that the airline has said cost it more than $50 million.

Earlier in October, Southwest suffered a similar episode, when a confluence of factors led it to cancel nearly 2,000 flights after a brief period of bad weather in Florida.

The common thread with all of the cancelations has been short-staffing.

As travel demand has rebounded from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines have been forced to decide how to balance the surge in travel interest with reduced staffing due — caused in large part by early retirements, buyouts, and voluntary leaves of absence taken at the start of the crisis.

Although carriers have tried to hire new staff and recall those on leave, the current tight labor market has complicated the effort.

Carriers including Southwest and American have built aggressive schedules to try and meet as much of the demand as possible. However, this has left them with little margin of error to recover — compared to pre-pandemic — when something goes wrong. Even minor weather disruptions can end up having an outsized impact.

More: Here’s what’s behind the Southwest Airlines cancellations

The prevalence of these issues has led to consumer worries over air travel during the upcoming holiday travel season, when demand is expected to be a pandemic-era high.

Spirit and Southwest have pointed to plans to slow growth and ensure adequate staffing levels over the holidays, while American pointed to plans already in the works to improve staffing — including the recall of more than 1,800 flight attendants from pandemic leaves, along with plans to hire 600 new cabin crew members by the end of the year.

In a memo to employees during the meltdown, which was seen by TPG, American Airlines COO David Seymour pointed those staffing plans.

“The hiring of pilots and within Tech Ops continues to take place, and we already began ramping up hiring in Reservations so more team members will be in place for the holiday season,” Seymour wrote.

“Additionally, hiring for our Airports is well underway and we anticipate 4,000 new team members joining us across the system in the fourth quarter.”

The airline also sent a letter to frequent flyers apologizing and explaining the plans.

In an interview with TPG last month, incoming Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said that the airline trimmed its schedule to build in more of a margin for error during the holidays, and said that expects to have enough staff to handle the busy travel period.

Spirit, too, said it plans to build more slack into its system to avoid issues during the holidays.

“Let’s build the base to get ready for the summer of next year,” Spirit CEO Ted Christie said during an earnings call with investors in October, “and we’ll layer the capacity in as necessary.”

One airline, meanwhile, has so far managed to avoid prolific snafus and seems as thought it might be taking a victory lap.

On Wednesday, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby sent a remarkable email to some customers, taking a not-so-subtle dig at American and Southwest.

More: The Department of Transportation is looking at Spirit Airlines’ operational meltdown

I’ve heard from many of you in the past few weeks and I know you’re eager to return to travel — especially around the holidays,” Kirby wrote. “Many of you have asked if you can book with confidence on United this holiday season. And the short answer is, yes you can!”

The email went on to explain United’s plan for adding staff and capacity back into its system.

“That’s because we’ve taken a unique approach to the complexity of rebuilding an airline in the midst of a pandemic,” Kirby added. “After dramatically cutting our schedule at the start of the pandemic, we knew it would be really hard to try and bring it all back at once. That’s why we gradually added flights over time. Our North Star in this recovery is making sure we do the right thing for customers and if that means sacrificing some possible short-term profits to ensure a reliable operation, then so be it.”

Featured photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

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