Air travel is not a vacation as Covid-19 and winter storms cancel flights

Airlines may have thought their pandemic issues were behind them in the fall as a wave of coronavirus subsided and travelers increasingl...


Airlines may have thought their pandemic issues were behind them in the fall as a wave of coronavirus subsided and travelers increasingly took flight. But a new wave of viruses and winter storms have left carriers and their passengers in a vacation mess.

As New Years’ weekend approaches, when return flights produce another spike in air travel, airlines have canceled more than 1,000 flights a day to, from or within the states. -United. The carriers and their employees say the latest chapter in the pandemic, the Omicron variant, has dramatically reduced staffing capacity on flights, even though a large majority of crew members are vaccinated.

“I have never seen such a collapse in my life,” said Angelo Cucuzza, organization director of the Transport Workers Union, which represents the flight attendants of JetBlue. “They just can’t keep track of the number of people who test positive.”

JetBlue was one of the hardest hit airlines, canceling 17% of its flights on Thursday, according to air travel data site FlightAware. The carrier said on Wednesday it would cut about 1,280 flights until mid-January, citing increased cases of the virus in the northeast, where its operations and crews are concentrated.

And then there was the weather, always a volatile element in vacation travel but particularly difficult in recent days – especially in the Pacific Northwest, where heavy snowfall and record temperatures failed last weekend. .

The next few days could be just as frustrating. Storms in southern California and the northwest could combine to dump snow on airline hubs in Denver and Chicago, with severe thunderstorms also threatening Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Dan said. DePodwin, director of forecasting operations at AccuWeather.

Alaska Airlines, whose main hub is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, has gone so far as to suggest that people postpone non-essential travel until the New Year. The carrier was hit hard again on Thursday, with 14% of its flights canceled as Seattle received more snow.

According to estimates by the Transportation Security Administration, up to 10 million people could fly from Thursday to Monday. For months, airlines have been packing in labor pools for the holiday rush. But these measures were inadequate in a rapidly changing situation, and many passengers were frustrated.

“Even though it’s been two years with Covid, it doesn’t seem like they figured it out,” said Sabine Malloy, whose plan to date her boyfriend in Alaska to see the Northern Lights was turned upside down on Tuesday when their two Delta Air Lines flights – his from Southern California, his from Denver – were canceled. Delta told them she couldn’t book them for several days, she said, so they canceled their plans – after her boyfriend drove seven hours from South Dakota for his flight.

Trying to change plans before leaving was also intimidating. A traveler trying to book a family trip on American Airlines encountered a recording saying he expected a four-hour wait for an agent callback.

Some say the airlines are partly to blame for the turmoil. The industry received $ 54 billion in federal aid to keep workers employed throughout the pandemic, aid that came with a ban on layoffs. But carriers have been able to narrow their ranks by offering buyouts and early retirement packages to thousands of workers.

Airlines have started hiring again as the travel rebound took off this year, but most have yet to fully recover their workforce: the industry employed nearly 413,000 people in October, down from almost 9% compared to the same month in 2019, according to federal data. Airlines have struggled to turn a profit as passenger volumes remain around 15% below pre-pandemic levels.

Industry has turned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in recent days for a partial solution to its staffing issues, pushing for the recommended 10-day isolation period for those infected with the coronavirus to be reduced. to five days. Some scientists, not affiliated with airlines, made a similar suggestion to bolster strained labor forces in other areas, such as hospitals.

Monday, the CDC changed direction to five days of isolation for people whose symptoms have stopped or are improving, followed by five days of mask wear. The agency said the change was prompted by findings that the coronavirus was mainly transmitted one to two days before symptoms appeared and two to three days after.

On Tuesday, in a note seen by The New York Times, JetBlue told employees it would expect those “who have no symptoms, or whose symptoms are improving, to return to work after five days.” Crew members can stay on leave if they provide a doctor’s note, but they will not 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 grants five days of sick leave to infected workers, with two additional paid sick days if they choose to be tested on day 5 and the results are positive.

The shorter isolation time is fueling debate in the industry. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants from 17 airlines, urged on Tuesday to maintain a 10-day isolation period in a letter to airlines.

“We think this is a bad decision for aviation because it accepts that infectious people are returned to work or travel as passengers on our planes,” wrote Sara Nelson, union president. Several flight attendants interviewed expressed concerns that potentially contagious colleagues could return to work without being tested.

Airlines always prepare for turbulence, especially during the holidays, when bad winter weather in one place can throw an entire system off balance. But the industry has been hit particularly hard this year.

After two airlines, American and Southwest, canceled thousands of flights in October due to bad weather and a brief shortage of air traffic controllers, they vowed to fix the issues, offering bonuses to encourage employees to work during the vacation period, stepping up hires and pruning flight plans. The two have avoided widespread cancellations this holiday season.

“We realized that we need to make sure we have staff in place,” said David Seymour, chief operating officer of American, in an interview. The airline has recalled several thousand flight attendants on leave last month and this month and has hired nearly 600 more.

When chaos strikes, airlines engage in complicated choreography to get out of it.

The main goal, according to airlines and aviation experts, is to minimize the effect on passengers. But it’s easier said than done.

Alaska Airlines has spent months preparing plans for this holiday season, investing in personnel and equipment to deal with winter conditions and lining up rescue crews, according to Constance von Muehlen, its director of operations.

The airline has handled staff calling sick at high rates by offering extra pay to others, but sustained snowfall and record high temperatures in the Seattle area have forced it to cancel nearly a third of its hours. flights Sunday, about a quarter on Monday and about a fifth on Tuesday.

“Once you’ve had a bad day, there’s nothing more you can do to catch up,” Ms. von Muehlen said.

The airline made a blunt announcement on Tuesday. Alaska would cut about 20% of flights from Seattle in the coming days to allow more time for planes to de-icing. He also “strongly” urged customers to delay non-essential travel until after this weekend.

“Our values ​​guided our decision,” she said. “We have to be as realistic as possible in what we will be able to operate and inform people, however difficult it is for us to do it.”

Setting up flight crews can be particularly tricky, with workers scattered across the country and subject to various regulations. Flight attendants are typically required to have nine hours of rest between shifts, for example.

The Omicron variant only complicated this already complicated process.

Captain James Belton, spokesperson for some 13,500 United Airlines pilots in the Air Line Pilots Association, confirmed that the variant created challenges.

“Our sickness calls are above normal,” he said. Many pilots have helped fill the gaps by working extra shifts, he said, but they are limited to 100 flying hours per month under federal law.

Ground operations are also affected. The Federal Aviation Administration warned Thursday that increased infections among employees, including air traffic control personnel, could cause delays.

The Transportation Security Administration said it was also concerned about the increase in viral infections, but had sufficient staff. Average wait times at airport security lines were around five minutes in recent days, a spokesperson said.

Going through security, of course, doesn’t guarantee that the rest of the trip will go smoothly.

Elizabeth Barnhisel and her husband were leaving on a delayed honeymoon when a canceled connection forced an unexpected overnight layover Tuesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Upon 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 waited so long for their bags.

Every few hours someone came up with a different reason for the fiasco: frozen carousels, Omicron, weather. After about 10 hours, Ms Barnhisel’s bag arrived on the other side of the airport.

The couple eventually reached their destination, Vancouver, but it wasn’t the honeymoon experience Ms Barnhisel had counted on. “We are flabbergasted,” she said. “We definitely took a risk on this trip. But in the end, we have to get back to normal somehow. “

Lauren Hirsch contributed reports.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Air travel is not a vacation as Covid-19 and winter storms cancel flights
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