Holiday travel: No extra planes, pilots or attendants. Bad weather could cripple the whole system

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

The number of people traveling is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, but fewer flights are happening, and fewer pilots and flight attendants are working. That means higher prices, crowded planes, and more angry passengers, including those who don’t want to wear masks. 

Over the weekend, American Airlines cancelled around 2,000 flights, blaming a Texas windstorm and staffing shortages.  

“American [Airlines] pretty much got flat-footed. They saw a lot of people who wanted to travel in the month of October. And they said, ‘Let's add some flights, let's take care of these people, and let's make some money.’ The problem was operationally they just couldn't do it,” says Brian Sumers, editor-at-large for the travel publication Skift. “It didn't have the pilots to do it, or the flight attendants to do it. And when they had a little bit of bad weather in one city, it all went downhill real fast.”

What’s behind the staff shortage? Sumers explains that while airlines generally did not lay off people during the pandemic (because they took tens of billions of dollars of government aid), a lot of people left the industry and took early retirement packages. 

He points out, “Airlines were down to about 10% of their regular size during the worst of the pandemic. To get back up to 100%, you don't just flip a switch. … It takes a long time to get back to a semblance of normal, and airlines and their passengers are learning that the hard way right now.”

However, airlines had a lot of time to prepare for the upcoming holiday travel season. 

“This is the first time in a long time where I can't come up with a defense for why airlines have been caught so flat-footed. People should expect more from airlines. … We may need to see the government step in and say, ‘Look airlines, you took tens of billions of dollars of what is essentially taxpayer money, and you have to get your act together.’”

What might the experience for passengers be like over the next few months?

“If the weather is good nationwide, it probably will be perfectly normal to fly on an airplane. If there's thunderstorms on the East Coast or snowstorms in Chicago, or maybe even some rain here in LA … things could get out of order really fast,” Sumers says. “So airlines are trying to be very efficient … they don't have a lot of slack in the system. They don't have a lot of extra pilots and flight attendants or extra planes. And so … just one bit of bad weather somewhere in the country seems to cripple the system.”

He says that everyone wants to travel after being cooped up for so long during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Right now we see a lot of flights actually sell out. That's how popular travel is right now.”