New York (CNN Business)– Rising COVID-19 cases and severe winter storms have resulted in a dismal travel season for hundreds of thousands of stranded air passengers. But airline downsizing was also to blame for the 20,000 US flights canceled in the past two weeks.
Airlines have entered the busiest travel period of the past two years with far fewer employees than before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
It stretched staff too thin and made it difficult for airlines to adapt as large numbers of staff tested positive for Covid-19 and harsh winter conditions battered major airports from Denver to Washington.
So it shouldn’t have been surprising that travel was bumpy this holiday season. In fact, some industry experts predicted it.
“It is true that the omicron wave was a surprise. However, it was made worse by unforeseen weather or virus incidents,” said Dennis Tajer, 737 pilot for American Airlines and spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association. , the union of the biggest. country’s airline. “In short, the management sold tickets that it could not fill without constraint. It does not appear that they have tested their plan of operations.
All airlines said they were doing their best to accommodate passengers amid widespread problems. Many flights were canceled in advance to give passengers as much notice as possible. For example, nearly 300 US flights originally scheduled for Wednesday have already been canceled. And all the airlines say they are doing their best to hire the necessary staff so that they don’t have any problems in the future.
But these widespread problems are becoming more common, with airline workers complaining of being burnt out by harsh working conditions.
How Airlines Are Downsizing
Airlines agreed early in the pandemic that they would not involuntarily lay off staff in exchange for $54 billion in federal aid. However, the big four airlines have responded to the massive losses caused by the drop in demand for air travel by offering voluntary severance packages and early retirement plans for staff. This reduced the number of airline employees by the thousands.
Airlines were pleased when they managed to get through Thanksgiving week with a very low cancellation rate. But the day after Thanksgiving, the world discovered the omicron variant, which would wreak havoc on the workforce later that year.
And it’s a problem that won’t go away, even when the snow stops falling and vacationers head home.
“The real storm is omicron, which could peak in late January. Snowstorms are minor issues by comparison,” said Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy, an air travel site.
Kelly said that regardless of airline preparations, the spike in Covid cases caused by the highly contagious omicron variant was going to cause problems.
“No one could have foreseen omicron. It’s the curveball of curveballs,” he said. “I commend the industry for trying to plan as much as possible.”
But Kelly said it was also clear airlines were downsizing too much in 2020.
“We’re at a breaking point,” Kelly said. “Where we are today is not sustainable. They need to hire more, have more staff to call upon.”
All airlines say they are hiring, but with certification rules and regulations, it takes much longer to hire new employees than other employers, in some cases a year or more. And given the uncertainty surrounding the return of passenger traffic, airlines have yet to return to pre-pandemic employment levels.
Staff numbers at the four major airlines that handle an overwhelming majority of passengers in the United States, American, Delta, United and Southwest, were down 10% to 11% as of September 30, compared to December 31, 2019.
Deliberate decision to downsize
Part of that downsizing was a deliberate decision by airlines, which have struggled for years to offer more flights – and carry more passengers – with fewer employees.
“We’ve had 20,000 casualties,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said during an investor presentation in December. And while the airline has only filled 9,000 of those positions to date, “our workforce is right where I want it to be,” he said. The additional hires will come as the company tries to expand its capacity beyond what it was before the pandemic.
While airlines say they’re getting the applicants they need to fill positions, they’re also admitting they’re getting fewer applicants per job than in the past. And even some staff who have taken unpaid leave have taken longer to return than expected by the airlines.
Airline executives admitted it was harder to fill the positions than they had anticipated a year ago.
“I thought we’d call them and say, ‘Okay, it’s time to come back,’ and they’d show up, and it would be business as usual,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in a speech to the investors in October. However, he said calling the workers was not so easy, as many employees who had been laid off decided they did not want to return.
“I think everything will work out, both with the current employees we’re trying to bring back and with the new hires,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen in the fourth quarter. It’s going to take time.”
And without such depth in staffing, when problems arise, recovery can take a long time. This is what happened during several service collapses in early 2020 at Southwest and American airlines. And that’s one of the reasons more than 1,200 flights were canceled on Wednesday, even though the bad weather passed.
“It’s going to take a long time, up to a week, to get pilots and planes (up to level) where they need to be,” said Kerry Tan, a business professor at Loyola University in Maryland and an expert. airlines.
Another ripple effect: as major airlines hire new employees, they shed essential staff from the lowest-paid regional airlines that operate many connecting flights booked under the American, United and Delta brands.
“The airlines have the worst,” Tan said. One of the major regional carriers, Skywest, “has canceled nearly a quarter of its scheduled flights,” he said.
The problems of staff shortages are not new: airlines have been mobilizing for years to try to serve more and more passengers with fewer and fewer employees.
In 2002, US passenger airlines had 520,000 employees serving 613 million passengers. This represents approximately one employee for every 1,200 passengers throughout the year. In 2019, the number of employees had fallen to 485,000, but passenger traffic increased by more than 50%, reaching a record 926 million, or more than 2,000 passengers per employee.
“We estimate we can fly 10 per cent more routes than in 2019 with the same number of staff we needed in 2019,” United chief financial officer Gerald Laderman said in a call to shareholders. investors in October.
— CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.