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It’s supposed to be a year of renewal for the airlines. It’s a tough start. The industry ended an already messy holiday season with thou...


It’s supposed to be a year of renewal for the airlines. It’s a tough start.

The industry ended an already messy holiday season with thousands of additional flight cancellations as businesses struggled to cope with inclement weather and keep planes and airports on staff amid an increase in infections coronavirus. More than 8,000 flights in the United States were canceled from Saturday to Monday, affecting more than one in 10 scheduled flights, according to FlightAware, a tracking service.

“We had a series of punches that really took the industry to the ground,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a research firm specializing in the travel industry.

The recent cancellations were caused by storms that produced heavy snowfall in the Midwest over the weekend and over Eastern United States Monday, the worst day of the holiday season with more than 2,900 canceled flights. Southwest Airlines and SkyWest Airlines, which operate regional flights for several major carriers, accounted for about a third of all cancellations over the weekend and Monday.

“Our planners continue to work to anticipate operational challenges today in the wake of the winter storm that swept through the country over the weekend, creating a band of bad winter weather affecting the Baltimore / DC area on Monday morning.” Southwest said in a statement. The airline has a large hub at the Baltimore / Washington International Airport.

SkyWest said it “is working around the clock to minimize the impact on customers and the crew.”

Overall, airlines canceled more than 15,000 flights in the 10 days covering Christmas and New Years, or about 7% of all scheduled flights. Heavy snowfall and high winds in the western United States resulted in cancellations around Christmas. The unrest throughout the holiday season has been exacerbated by the shortage of crews as pilots, flight attendants and other workers called coronavirus patients.

The dismay comes as airlines set their hopes for a rebound next summer. The industry is hiring workers quickly in anticipation of a return to pre-pandemic passenger traffic – and continued profits. Much of this recovery is based on the hope that the pandemic will be largely under control and that people will be more willing to travel for work and take more international trips.

“We still think we’re going to have a very strong summer in the transatlantic market,” Delta chairman Glen Hauenstein told investors in mid-December, as the Omicron variant began its rapid spread. Delta plans to offer approximately 85% as many flights across the Atlantic next summer as in 2019.

For many airlines, workforce expansion was already underway last fall. After being forced to cancel hundreds of flights as they sought to make too many flights with too few employees, American Airlines and Southwest cut their schedules and accelerated hiring. American has recalled several thousand flight attendants on leave and has hired 4,000 new employees in recent months.

“We took some very aggressive steps out of the summer, building the airline,” said David Seymour, American chief operating officer, in an interview.

Southwest has also ramped up recruiting, although executives told investors last month that too many workers resigning and recruits demanding higher wages had slowed efforts. “The recruiting environment is the most difficult we have ever seen,” Gary Kelly, president and CEO of the airline, said at an investor conference in December.

Critics say the industry deserves to be blamed for its own problems. Airlines have received $ 54 billion in federal aid to keep workers employed during the pandemic on condition they avoid layoffs. But carriers have still cleared their ranks by offering buyouts and early retirement packages to thousands of workers.

Most airlines have yet to fully recover: In October, the industry employed around 413,000 people, down almost 9% from the same month in 2019, according to federal data.

The airlines had reason to downsize. Most have struggled to consistently generate profit as the number of people stealing has not fully recovered. The number of passengers screened at airports over the past two weeks has fallen by around 15% compared to a similar period in 2019.

Omicron, of course, poses a threat to the industry, but some industry analysts believe its impact will be short-lived. “It’s somewhere between, I think, a four- and six-week stoppage in what used to be the aviation recovery,” said John Grant, senior analyst at OAG, a company that provides global travel data. .

Indeed, millions of people have boarded flights in the United States in the past two weeks, despite the variant’s spread, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

But Omicron has made it harder to operate airlines. Even before the pandemic, storms could destabilize an airline’s vacation schedule. This season, the problem has been compounded by the high number of employees who have reported sick.

“The national peak of Omicron cases has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operations,” said United Airlines, which canceled nearly 8% of its flights from Christmas Eve through Sunday. . “We’re sorry for the disruption and we’re working hard to book as many people as possible and get them out.” “

In a staff note last week, JetBlue, which canceled 13% of its flights in a similar period, said it had received “record-breaking illness calls.”

Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could help. Last week, the agency said it recommended that people infected with the coronavirus be isolated for only five days instead of 10. Airlines immediately began adjusting their policies to recall infected workers more quickly, decisions that have encountered resistance from flight attendants and other employees.

“We believe this is the wrong decision for aviation because it accepts that infectious people are returned to work or travel as passengers on our planes,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants from 17 airlines, said last week in a letter to airline executives.

With the holidays over and the industry entering what is generally a rough patch, airlines should be able to weather the mess of the past few weeks and prepare for the summer.

“I believe that unless another variant emerges as unsettling as Omicron has been, the summer of 2022 should be a very good summer for airlines and the rest of the travel industry,” Mr Harteveldt said.

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