Thanksgiving travel surge to test airlines as industry struggles to recover from labor shortages, pandemic

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  • The TSA says it expects 20 million passengers, roughly the same as in 2019.
  • American, Southwest and JetBlue offer staff attendance bonuses to avoid staff shortages during the holidays.
  • Airlines and the TSA say they are prepared for the rush of passengers.

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Travelers are about to find out whether airlines are prepared for a surge in Thanksgiving passengers.

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The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen about 20 million people between Friday and November 28, roughly at 2019 levels. Many of those travelers skipped Thanksgiving trips last year because of rising Covid cases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against travel during the holiday.

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines both said the Sunday after Thanksgiving could be their busiest day before the pandemic. Airlines predicted this week that between November 19 and November 30, they would fly at least 5.6 million and 4.5 million passengers, respectively.

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The increase in travelers is good news for one of the industries worst-hit by the pandemic. But some airlines have struggled to meet their ambitious schedules at times, resulting in a large number of recent cancellations at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.

Getting the balance right is important as airlines try to return to profits, facing challenges from high fuel prices and new lockdowns in parts of Europe.

Those carriers canceled more than 2,000 flights in less than a week this fall. Delays and cancellations have plagued passengers, who have complained of waiting hours to speak to customer service, sometimes with their flights halted for longer than the duration.

staffing conflict

Staff shortages have been a major challenge for airlines, which encouraged thousands of workers to take leave of absence or early retirement to cut carriers’ payrolls during the pandemic. Now they are rushing to hire pilots, reservation agents, flight attendants and other employees. Sick calls have also contributed to disruptions.

Low staffing levels make it difficult for airlines to recover from routine problems such as inclement weather.

“It’s going to be a busy holiday season,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said Wednesday at The Skift Aviation Forum. “We’re ready for it.”

The carrier expects to fly about 5,000 flights a day during Thanksgiving week, which is just 8% less than it flew during that period in 2019.

American is offering flight attendants 50% more pay for working holiday trips and up to triple pay for those flights if they meet attendance goals in early January. The Fort Worth-based carrier has also jeopardized a $1,000 holiday attendance incentive to other employees, including its regional airline subsidiaries.

The American Airlines pilots’ union rejected the company’s proposal to double pay for holiday trips, arguing that the airline needed to make permanent changes to its scheduling.

“The planes have to be in the air, not the schedule,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association.

Southwest, for its part, has offered more than $1,400 frequent flyer meal worts to employees to meet holiday attendance goals as of early next year.

Southwest said it would further cut its fourth-quarter schedule to avoid disruptions, a measure that American and Spirit Airlines took earlier this year. Its flight crew has complained of exhaustion from the grueling schedule. This is on top of tensions over a surge in unruly and violent passenger behavior this year.

The Union of Southwest Flight Attendants said the holiday incentives were insufficient.

"Please know that your union knows you deserve more and will continue to remind management that if morale is ever to change, they really need to step back and listen to their employees once again," He wrote in a note to members last weekend.

margin for error

United and Delta have been more conservative about adding back capacity, though they are partially affected by longer-standing travel restrictions than more US-focused carriers.

United estimated it would restore 77% of its capacity in the fourth quarter, while Delta forecasted 80%, American at 89% and Southwest at 92%, according to a securities filing.

The CEOs of United and Delta wrote in recent weeks to assure customers they could book their trips with confidence regarding staffing strategies and customer service tools.

United CEO Scott Kirby this week took a dig at its competitors, who have stumbled in recent months.

"We've left ourselves a margin of error. In an airline, if you don't create the slightest wave in the system in that margin of error, whether it's an afternoon weather or strong winds on a day, if you're not careful , it could fall into a recession," he said at the Skift conference on Wednesday. "I think some of our competitors overstated their margins for error in their enthusiasm to fly a full schedule."

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