Holiday Hell

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December 30, 2021

AT THE AIRPORT in Boston, yesterday, the check-in lines reached all the way to the sidewalks. I’d never seen anything like it. I had to put my luggage down and gawk. And most of the passengers, it hardly needs mentioning, looked supremely distressed.

Across the United States, the past week has been a once-in-a-lifetime maelstrom of cancellations and chaos. Literally thousands of flights have been cancelled, upending the plans of countless holiday travelers. We’d seen scattered episodes of this throughout the pandemic, with airlines taking turns in the headlines — American, Southwest, Sprit — suffering through this or that operational meltdown. This time it’s across the board. All of the majors, and some regional carriers too, are struggling to meet their schedules. The whole industry seems to have been blindsided. How did this happen?

The most glaring problem is staffing. The airline bailouts of 2020 and 2021 were engineered to keep people like me from being laid off, and they largely succeeded. Without government assistance, untold numbers of airline workers would have lost their jobs, either temporary or permanently. But while this money protected jobs in the short term, it did not keep the carriers from hemorrhaging billions of dollars. And one of the ways airlines dealt with these losses was to trim their payrolls by offering early retirement packages and other enticing severance deals. Many workers, across a wide swath of departments, including pilots and flight attendants, accepted these offers and left. Hiring, meanwhile, ground to a halt.

Now, with passengers rushing back, airlines can’t keep up.

It looks like some pretty poor decision-making, and maybe it was. But consider the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like this, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. As the virus ebbed and surged, travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week; absolutely nothing was certain, and almost nobody predicted the volume of flyers would surge back so quickly. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. Airlines did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others — and that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

Making it all worse, the number of pilots and flight attendants testing positive for coronavirus is soaring. The vast majority of cases, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, are reportedly mild or asymptomatic, but you’re not permitted to work following a positive result. Airline crew scheduling departments are in a tizzy now as they’re forced to remove and replace crews, often on short notice.

The formula might seem simple: don’t operate more flights than your staffing levels and logistics can handle. That’s easier said than done, however, when things are in a constant state of flux.

And airlines, don’t forget, rely on a vast support network of contractors and vendors to keep their operations running, from caterers and cabin cleaners to the drivers who provide crew transportation. Some of these entities received government support as things wore on, others didn’t. Many closed their doors permanently, and pretty much all of them have fewer employees now than they did before. Airport retailers and restaurants also shed thousands of workers, and, not unlike retailers and restaurants everywhere, they’re having a hard time hiring them back. Not to mention the critical roles played by TSA and air traffic control, who also find themselves understaffed. All of this bogs things down even further.

I’m not the biased apologist you might think I am, and I certainly have my gripes at the moment. I deal with the same delays, canceled flights, and endless telephone hold times that you do. But go back a year, to the height of the crisis, when nobody had any idea how or when things might improve, and the entire travel industry was hanging on for its life. Tell me what you would have done. Hating on airlines never goes out of style, and this latest mess, at least on the surface, smacks of short-sightedness and incompetence. It is, of course, more complicated than that.


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