Signing bonuses and even more free flights: How the travel industry is fighting to survive the labor crisis

Sep 2, 2021

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The next time you feel like griping at a flight attendant for getting your drink order wrong or a hotel front desk assistant when your upgrade doesn’t clear, consider that the travel industry is stretched thin for workers — and people aren’t lining up to take their jobs.

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Of the jobs that were lost as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, 65% were in the travel industry, according to data from the U.S. Travel Association released earlier this year. Before the pandemic, travel and tourism jobs accounted for 11% of the U.S. workforce, but the industry shrank from $2.6 trillion to $1.5 trillion in 2020.

The pandemic has been tough on travelers, certainly, but the people who have been most affected are likely to be employees who have risked their health and safety at the travel industry’s front lines

As travel rebounds, companies aren’t just trying to attract travelers; they’re also trying to fill empty roles lost during the pandemic. Some have drummed up creative ways to attract job candidates and keep the employees they have. But nearly two years into the pandemic, is it enough? 

The travel industry dangles perks to retain employees

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Signing bonuses. Flight coupons. Something called “swag” points. 

These are some of the ways travel companies are luring prospective job candidates to apply amid staffing shortages throughout the industry.

Southwest Airlines made news in mid-August after announcing an employee referral program to get more people to apply at the airline. The airline hopes to convince employees to help fill jobs and is reportedly hoping to hire 4,500 workers. 

Employees will receive a total of 20,000 “swag” points (not to be confused with Rapid Rewards points). Employees will get 10,000 points when the person they referred reports for their first day, and an additional 10,000 after their referral stays with the airline for six months. 

But some of the efforts seem to be a bit underwhelming for an industry that says it’s hurting for workers and received significant government bailouts.

For instance, Southwest values the “swag points” — an acronym for Southwest Airlines Gratitude points — at 1.5 cents each, making the referral bonus worth about $300. While that isn’t a terrible bonus, the points can’t actually be used on Southwest flights. Instead, employees can redeem them for guest passes, gift cards or to purchase Rapid Rewards points. 

At Denver International Airport (DEN), the company that runs the airport’s Dunkin’ Donuts offered $500 signing bonuses for cashiers, according to Travel Weekly. A company “urgently hiring” for a $16-an-hour cashier role at Buffalo Airport offers free parking and discounted meals. 

Some companies, at a glance, appear to have done a better job.

Like Southwest, United Airlines is attempting to attract workers. The airline recently held a career fair where job hunters received a coupon code for 20% off a future United flight. Some roles are eligible for a $5,000 signing bonus, the airline said. 

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to reach its annual goal of hiring 6,000 new officers, it’s luring applicants with sizable signing bonuses. The agency has frequently tweeted it was offering up to $1,000 in bonuses. But even with a signing bonus, pay for transportation security officers are notoriously low, and some salaries start at just $30,000, according to Indeed

That’s one reason the industry isn’t just focused on luring new workers. It’s also struggling to keep current employees happy as the U.S. experiences a labor shortage the Chamber of Commerce termed a “national economic emergency.” In a study from Florida Atlantic University, more than one-third of employees in the travel industry said they would look for jobs elsewhere in the next year. The study’s authors attributed that to low pay.

The industry is simultaneously trying to recover from a financially devastating 2020 and stave off a potential drop in travel due to the delta coronavirus variant. While the beginning of the summer seemed like the moment of travel’s big rebound, air travel has already begun to take a significant hit. 1.4 million people were screened at U.S. airports on Aug. 24, the lowest number in three months, according to the TSA figures.

Southwest recently sounded the alarm that the rising number of COVID-19 cases linked to the delta variant was starting to hurt its business.

But 18 months into the pandemic, travel professionals say they’re exhausted — even with the bonuses, free food and “swag.” And the industry is competing with not just higher-paying jobs and more regular hours but with employee burnout. 

While travel professionals I spoke to were grateful to be back to work, they also say the stress of the job has hit them hard. David, a United flight attendant who requested TPG use only his first name to speak candidly, implored travelers to “pack their patience” when traveling right now. 

“Staffing shortages do hurt, especially when it comes to re-crewing flights,” said David. “As reserves, we end up getting used more often than we ever have before, and it’s creating a sensation of burnout.”

Flight attendants do more than just serve drinks and conduct the safety briefing before takeoff, of course. They’re the most visible airline employees during flights and have faced verbal and physical abuse — especially when enforcing the federal mask mandate.

More than 85% of flight attendants who responded to a recent survey say they have encountered unruly passengers over the first seven months of 2021. According to the survey results, nearly 20% of those who responded say they’ve experienced physical violence at work this year, which was run by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a major flight attendants union. 

Travel has never been more challenging than ever for travelers, but it’s just as difficult for stressed employees, some of whom may be new to the job.

“[COVID-19] is a new world for all of us,” David said. “We are trying our best not only to serve you safely but to also deal with the fatigue and staff shortages we’re facing on our end.”

Featured photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy

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