In the fall, airlines might have believed that their pandemic problems were over as a coronavirus outbreak subsided and more travelers took to the skies. But a new virus outbreak and winter storms have left carriers and their passengers in a holiday mess.
Heading into the New Year’s weekend, when return flights will produce another crest in air travel, airlines have been canceling more than 1,000 flights a day to, from or within the United States. According to airline employees and carriers, the Omicron variant of pandemic has severely affected the ability of airlines to staff flights, even though the vast majority are vaccinated.
“I’ve never seen a meltdown like this in my life,” said Angelo Cucuzza, the director of organizing at the Transport Workers Union, which represents flight attendants at JetBlue. “They just can’t keep up with the amount of folks that are testing positive.”
According to FlightAware, JetBlue was one of the most affected airlines, cancelling 17 percent of its flights on Thursday. The carrier announced Wednesday that it would reduce 1,280 flights between January 1st and January 2, citing an increase in virus cases within the Northeast, where its operations, crews, and staff are concentrated.
And then there was the weather, always a volatile element in holiday travel but particularly challenging in recent days — notably in the Pacific Northwest, where heavy snowfall and record low temperatures grounded planes last weekend.
The next few weeks could prove to be just as frustrating. According to AccuWeather director Dan DePodwin (director of forecast operations), storms from the Northwest and Southern California could dump snow on airports in Chicago and Denver. Additionally, severe thunderstorms could threaten Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
Alaska Airlines, which has its main hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, suggested that people postpone any unnecessary travel until the new year. The airline was again affected by the snowstorm in Seattle, which saw 14 percent of its flights cancelled.
According to Transportation Security Administration estimates, up to 10 million people could fly between Thursday and Monday. Airlines have been building up their workforce for the holiday rush for months. However, these measures were not sufficient in a fast-changing environment and many passengers were frustrated.
“Even though it’s been two years with Covid, it does not seem like they have this figured out,” said Sabine Malloy, whose plan to rendezvous with her boyfriend in Alaska to see the northern lights was upended on Tuesday when both their flights on Delta Air Lines — hers from Southern California, his from Denver — were canceled. Delta told them that it could not rebook them for several days, she said, so they canceled their plans — after her boyfriend had driven seven hours from South Dakota for his flight.
It was difficult to change your plans before you depart. A traveler who tried to rebook American Airlines for a family trip encountered a recording that said he should expect to wait four hours to be contacted by an agent.
Some believe that airlines are partly to blame for the chaos. The federal aid provided $54 billion to the industry to help keep workers employed through the pandemic. It also included a ban against layoffs. Carriers were able, however, to trim their ranks by offering buyouts to thousands of workers and early retirement packages.
As the travel rebound took off this past year, airlines started hiring again, but many have yet to fully rebuild their workforces. According to federal data, the industry employed almost 413,000 people in October, which is nearly 9 percent less than the same month in 2019. As passenger volumes are still below preandemic levels, airlines have struggled to turn a profit.
The industry turned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find a partial solution for its staffing problems. They lobbyed for the reduction of the 10-day isolation period for coronavirus-infected individuals to be reduced to just five days. A similar suggestion was made by scientists not affiliated with airlines to help bolster stressed work forces in other fields, like hospitals.
C.D.C. On Monday, the C.D.C. shifted its guidance to five consecutive days of isolation for people with symptoms that have abated or ended. Then, five days in masking. According to the agency, the change was motivated in part by the findings that coronavirus is transmitted between one and two days before symptoms develop and two to three days afterwards.
On Tuesday, in a memo seen by The New York Times, JetBlue told employees that it would expect those “who have no symptoms, or whose symptoms are improving, to come back to work after five days.” Crew members may remain on leave if they provide a doctor’s note, but they won’t be paid as if they were working, according to Mr. Cucuzza of the Transport Workers Union.
Asked for comment, JetBlue said, “The health and safety of our crew members and customers remains our top priority as we work through this pandemic.”
Delta is providing five days’ sick leave for infected workers, with two additional paid sick days if they choose to be tested on Day 5 and the results are positive.
The industry is having a heated debate about the shorter isolation period. The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50k flight attendants at 17 airlines and sent a letter Tuesday urging airlines to maintain a 10-day isolation time.
“We believe this is the wrong move for aviation as it accepts that infectious people will be put back on the job or flying as passengers on our planes,” Sara Nelson, the union’s president, wrote. Many flight attendants who were interviewed expressed concern that potentially contagious colleagues might return work without being tested.
Airlines prepare for any kind of turmoil, especially around holidays, when bad weather in one area can bring down the entire system. The industry has been particularly hard hit this year.
American and Southwest had to cancel thousands of flights in October due to severe weather and a short shortage of air traffic controllers. They promised to fix the problem by offering bonuses to employees, increasing their hiring, and trimming flight plans. Both airlines avoided widespread cancellations this holiday period.
“We realized that we have got to make sure that we have staffing in place,” David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. The airline has recalled thousands of flight attendants on leave and hired nearly 600 more.
Airlines perform a complex dance to escape chaos when it happens.
According to aviation experts and airlines, the primary goal is to minimize the impact on passengers. But that’s easier said than done.
According to Constance von Muehlen (chief operating officer), Alaska Airlines spent months planning for this holiday season and investing in equipment and staff to handle the winter weather.
The airline offered extra pay to compensate for sick staff who called in sick at high rates. However, the Seattle area’s continued snowfall and record-breaking temperatures forced it to cancel nearly a third of its flights on Sunday. It also had to cancel about one-quarter of its Monday and Tuesday flights.
“Once you get your day off poorly, there’s nothing you can do to catch up,” Ms. von Muehlen said.
The airline made a shocking announcement Tuesday. Alaska will reduce flights from Seattle by around 20% in the coming days in order to give more time for de-icing. It also “strongly” urged customers to delay nonessential travel until after this weekend.
“Our values guided our decision,” she said. “We need to be as realistic as possible in what we will be able to operate and to let people know, as difficult as it is for us to do that.”
It can be difficult to get flight crews in place, especially with workers scattered throughout the country and subjected different regulations. For example, flight attendants must have nine hours of sleep between shifts.
This already complicated process has been made more difficult by the Omicron variant.
“Our sick calls are above normal,” he said. Many pilots have filled in gaps by picking up additional shifts but are restricted to flying 100 hours per month under federal law.
Also, operations on the ground are being affected. On Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration warned that rising infections among employees, including those working in air traffic control, could cause delays.
According to the Transportation Security Administration, it is also concerned about rising viral infections but has sufficient staffing. According to a spokesperson, the average wait time at airport security lines was only five minutes in recent times.
Although it is possible to pass security, it does not guarantee that the rest will be easy.
Elizabeth Barnhisel and her spouse were on their delayed honeymoon, when a cancelled connection caused an unexpected overnight layover at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Tuesday. Entering a baggage claim area, they found what looked like hundreds of bags lined up and crowds of miserable people — some crying, some napping, because they had been waiting so long for their bags.
Every few hours, someone would offer another reason for the mess: Omicron, frozen carousels or weather. After about 10 hours, Ms. Barnhisel’s bag arrived from across the airport.
Although they eventually reached Vancouver, it wasn’t the honeymoon Ms. Barnhisel had hoped for. “We’re flabbergasted,” she said. “We definitely took a risk by taking this trip. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to get back to normal somehow.”
Lauren HirschContributed reporting
Source: NY Times