Why flying is so bad and about to get worse?

Staff shortages lead to overworked cockpit crews and most flight cancellations. Vaccination mandates could lead to even more staff shortages. Less choice in flights has led to higher ticket prices. And fights over masks were the icing on the cake of a miserable year for travel.

Those problems will last well into the holiday season — and maybe they’ll get worse.

American and Southwest blamed their recent service outages on the lack of enough pilots and flight attendants to adjust for cancellations that started with inclement weather. Southwest’s Oct. 8-11 cancellation nightmare cost it $75 million, the airline recently reported.
Officials from several airline unions say their members are being stressed to the “breaking point” by working conditions due to understaffing. Many pilots and flight attendants say they are struggling to get hotel rooms they need to have the government-imposed rest while working.

Pilots at American have held informational pickets in recent weeks to complain about working conditions, and Southwest pilots are planning their own pickets this month. And airline unions say they are concerned the problems will get worse with the expected increase in travel during the holiday season.

“We want flying to be done, but we don’t want tickets sold that can’t be fulfilled,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, in an interview last month about the holiday season. “Do they bite off more than they can chew?”

Concerns about vaccine rules

Both American and Southwest say they will comply with federal rules that come into effect in early December for government contractors that require their employees to have received the Covid-19 vaccine.

Delta Airlines (BY) has said it doesn’t believe it needs to comply with those stricter rules, although all airlines will soon be required to meet federal requirements that businesses with 100 or more employees need a vaccine or weekly Covid testing.
Some industry analysts believe that complying with those rules will mean that a large number of airline employees will not be able to work during the holiday season, or that they will quit their jobs instead of sticking to them.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly recently said he doesn’t believe the airline will have to fire unvaccinated employees to comply. Instead, he said they are likely accommodations for workers with religious or medical reasons not to get vaccinated, possibly through the use of regular Covid testing.

“The last thing I want is for our people to be distracted by something like this vaccine mandate.” [during the holidays]he told investors last month. “The last thing I want is for people to be afraid that they won’t be able to work or have a job.”

But Scott Kirby, CEO of United, which instituted the industry’s strictest vaccine mandate even before the federal rules were announced, said he believes allowing airline personnel to avoid vaccines through regular testing will have its own problems. including the airlines that suddenly have more employees available to work due to positive tests or failure to get test results back. He believes United, which has already had nearly all employees vaccinated, is the only one that can promise passengers that their flights will not be disrupted by Covid safety protocols.

“Imagine one day you have thousands of employees calling and saying, ‘For some reason, my test failed,'” he told investors. “I mean, it’s going to be a huge challenge for airlines that don’t implement vaccine requirements. Customers can book with United with confidence. We’re done.”

Fewer seats, higher rates

As airlines try to hire more workers and encourage them to be fully vaccinated, the companies are addressing staffing issues by shortening their flight schedules.

That means fewer options for passengers booking flights, higher rates for available seats, and full planes. While passenger traffic has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, airlines have also not restored their schedules to the number of routes and aircraft they flew in 2019.

In July, 88% of available passenger seats were occupied on domestic flights, according to the latest data from the Ministry of Transport. That is the highest monthly reading since July 2019, months before the pandemic.

With airline personnel at breaking point, passengers can expect more headaches

Data from the major airlines shows that the percentage of seats sold fell slightly in August and September as the number of Covid cases increased and the summer travel season came to an end. But flight booking rates remained very high throughout the quarter.

The average amount paid to fly a mile on the four major airlines in the third quarter was just 4% lower than what they paid in the third quarter of 2019.

Because the two most expensive airfares — those purchased by business travelers and international passengers — were a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels, meaning the vacationers who boarded the plane paid far more than they did to fly during the same time period. period of 2019.

Rates are likely to remain high or move higher in the coming months.

All airlines report strong bookings during the Thanksgiving and New Year periods. And they’re all being hit by higher fuel prices, which typically translate to slightly higher rates, especially during times of strong demand.

Delta recently warned that it expects to pay $1.94 a gallon for fuel in the third quarter — 55% more than a year ago, but about the same price it paid two years ago. But the company warned it expects to pay between $2.25 and $2.40 a gallon on average over the last three months of the year. Fuel is the second largest expense for airlines, after wages and benefits for employees.

And Delta said, after just posting its first quarterly profit since the start of the pandemic, it expects to lose money in the fourth quarter due to higher fuel costs.

Not only will the airlines do their best to increase fares to cover the higher fuel costs, they will also further shorten the less profitable flights to limit their fuel consumption. This limited range also leads to less choice for passengers and higher fares.

Rising number of unruly, unhappy passengers

The more elaborate planes and rules about wearing masks during flights, unpopular with some passengers, only add to the tensions on board.

Airlines have reported a record number of violent clashes between flight attendants and passengers. A survey by the Association of Flight Attendants found that 85% said they have faced unruly passengers as passenger volume increased in the first half of 2021. More than half of 58% have experienced at least five incidents. And 17% reported a physical fight.

Last week, a passenger hit an American Airlines flight attendant twice in the face, breaking her nose. Earlier this year, a Southwest flight lost two front teeth and suffered facial injuries from an attack by a passenger.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been about 5,000 formal reports of unruly passengers so far this year, 72% of which involved disputes over the wearing of masks. While the number of cases has fallen from earlier this year, before the FAA stepped up enforcement action, it is still much more common than pre-pandemic levels.


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