Flying this holiday? Bring patience amid long waits and sympathy for airport staff

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

An Alaska Airlines passenger plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), September 14, 2021. Photo by Shutterstock.

AAA expects more than 53 million people to travel for Thanksgiving this year, nearly matching pre-pandemic levels amid hopes of a semi-formal holiday season. But about 30 states are experiencing rising COVID cases, and it’s especially bad in the upper Midwest and Northeast. So how can you protect yourself while traveling right now? 

Be aware that there is no domestic vaccine mandate, says Skift’s editor-at-large Brian Sumers. That’s largely due to a lack of political hunger to require it. 

“You see how tough it is to enforce a mask mandate, and you can literally see it on people's faces on the airplane. There's just a big swath of this country that doesn't want to have to show its vaccine card for anything,” he tells Press Play.

He notes that although flight attendants and other travel officials have started looking the other way when it comes to the federal mask requirement, some people are still getting in trouble. Sumers says the FAA has fined eight airline flyers a total of $160,000, including a drunk man who flew from Dallas-Fort Worth to Burbank and was fined $34,000. 

Although airlines are considered federal contractors (and its workers are required to be vaccinated), Sumers says they’ve been lax on mandating them to get the shots. He says some companies, including Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, have made it clear that they’d be very generous with vaccine exemptions. Others, such as United, have taken the requirement seriously. 

“United was very clear. It said, ‘We want people to get vaccinated and if you're not going to get vaccinated, maybe United isn't the right place for you to work.’ The other airlines have said, ‘Get an exemption. We can't afford to lose pilots. We can't afford to lose flight attendants,’ Sumers says. 

He adds that airline staffing is tight right now, which might be why companies are taking vaccine mandates less seriously. For example, American Airlines has recalled nearly 1,800 flight attendants in the last few months. To retain employees, Sumers says it’s offering 150% of regular pay for overtime, and giving them a chance to earn 300% of pay if they don’t call out sick during a predetermined time period.

What to expect at the airport

Sumers says to expect absolute mayhem at airports over the next few weeks. LAX recommends travelers arrive two to three hours before a flight. And due to low staffing, Sumers says to prepare for especially long lines to go through TSA security.

“I think people have to bring their patience to the airport. I know a lot of folks are upset. They know that these U.S. airlines took $50 billion of government aid during the worst of the pandemic,” he says. “But just know that the frontline workers that you're going to be dealing with at LAX this week, they're stressed. They're not paid that well, even with bonuses. This is a hard job for them. And I think that we have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

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