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.
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.
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.”
“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
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.
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.
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.