Airlines seek Thanksgiving comeback despite setbacks


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Caryl Anne Francia, Business Editor

The airline industry expected a high turnout to recoup losses from the coronavirus pandemic as millions of Americans flew home for Thanksgiving. Vaccine availability and high inoculation rates drove the surge of travelers who missed out on in-person gatherings last year, but airlines still faced setbacks.

The Transportation Security Administration projected that 20 million travelers would fly during the holiday weekend this year. That number is near pre-pandemic levels, with 26 million Americans having traveled in 2019 and is a drastic improvement from one million passengers in 2020.

“People are wanting to travel, wanting to go see family over the holiday or travel over the holiday,” Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines Group Inc., said while expressing excitement.

Despite air travel being encouraged this year, Americans have a lot to worry about. As the pandemic continues, unruly passengers are responding violently to the federal mask mandate, causing planes to be diverted from their destinations. More than 2,867 reports of individuals refusing to comply with the mandate have been filed since January, according to the Federal Aviation Association.

Although the F.A.A. issues fines to discourage the behavior, the continuing incidents and acute risk of coronavirus transmission gives reason for Americans to avoid the airways. Flight attendants are the victims in these situations, having to take leave because of passenger-inflicted injuries, which hurts their already low-staffed airlines.

“Even simple trips, when they should not have any problems, either they did not have enough crew to fly the plane, or the plane is there but they don’t have enough staffing, or the luggage is in the plane, and it can’t come out because they don’t have enough staffing,” passenger Maliha Aziz told The Guardian as she was traveling ahead of the holiday.

Some airlines, such as American Airlines Inc. and Spirit Airlines Inc., have been cancelling flights recently due to low staff in addition to bad weather. This leaves passengers stranded at airports and trying to book new flights.

American Airlines encouraged its staff to take leave to receive unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Few workers have left due to vaccine mandates, but the number has dwindled in favor of being employed.

Airline executives are incentivizing employment. Southwest Airlines Co. will give its employees reward points that can be used for free travel in addition to premium holiday pay as it aims to hire 5,000 new workers by year’s end, according to Fox Business.

American Airlines aims to hire 4,000 employees by the end of the fourth quarter. After recalling 1,800 attendants from long-term leave, it offered double pay for working holiday shifts, but the Allied Pilots Association union rejected it in favor of improved regular pay. This forced airlines to cut more scheduled flights.

“We are not interested in applying short-term fixes that fail to address the long-term, systemic issues facing our airline,” APA president Eric Ferguson said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of a surge of coronavirus cases because of full gatherings at homes and airports plus fully booked flights. Additionally, the new omicron COVID-19 variant sent airline stocks, as well as aircraft manufacturer Boeing Inc., falling more than 5% on Black Friday. Delta Air Lines Inc. lost 8.3% of its value while United Airlines Inc. lost 9.6%.

The airline industry estimated a loss of over $200 million since March 2020. While the pandemic and tumbling stocks may continue to threaten prosperity, flyers and airline workers are glad to feel some sense of normalcy at a busy terminal.