Holiday Hell

December 30, 2021

AT THE AIRPORT in Boston, yesterday, the check-in lines reached all the way to the sidewalks. I’d never seen anything like it. I had to put my luggage down and gawk. And most of the passengers, it hardly needs mentioning, looked supremely distressed.

Across the United States, the past week has been a once-in-a-lifetime maelstrom of cancellations and chaos. Literally thousands of flights have been cancelled, upending the plans of countless holiday travelers. We’d seen scattered episodes of this throughout the pandemic, with airlines taking turns in the headlines — American, Southwest, Sprit — suffering through this or that operational meltdown. This time it’s across the board. All of the majors, and some regional carriers too, are struggling to meet their schedules. The whole industry seems to have been blindsided. How did this happen?

The most glaring problem is staffing. The airline bailouts of 2020 and 2021 were engineered to keep people like me from being laid off, and they largely succeeded. Without government assistance, untold numbers of airline workers would have lost their jobs, either temporary or permanently. But while this money protected jobs in the short term, it did not keep the carriers from hemorrhaging billions of dollars. And one of the ways airlines dealt with these losses was to trim their payrolls by offering early retirement packages and other enticing severance deals. Many workers, across a wide swath of departments, including pilots and flight attendants, accepted these offers and left. Hiring, meanwhile, ground to a halt.

Now, with passengers rushing back, airlines can’t keep up.

It looks like some pretty poor decision-making, and maybe it was. But consider the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like this, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. As the virus ebbed and surged, travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week; absolutely nothing was certain, and almost nobody predicted the volume of flyers would surge back so quickly. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. Airlines did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others — and that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

Making it all worse, the number of pilots and flight attendants testing positive for coronavirus is soaring. The vast majority of cases, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, are reportedly mild or asymptomatic, but you’re not permitted to work following a positive result. Airline crew scheduling departments are in a tizzy now as they’re forced to remove and replace crews, often on short notice.

The formula might seem simple: don’t operate more flights than your staffing levels and logistics can handle. That’s easier said than done, however, when things are in a constant state of flux.

And airlines, don’t forget, rely on a vast support network of contractors and vendors to keep their operations running, from caterers and cabin cleaners to the drivers who provide crew transportation. Some of these entities received government support as things wore on, others didn’t. Many closed their doors permanently, and pretty much all of them have fewer employees now than they did before. Airport retailers and restaurants also shed thousands of workers, and, not unlike retailers and restaurants everywhere, they’re having a hard time hiring them back. Not to mention the critical roles played by TSA and air traffic control, who also find themselves understaffed. All of this bogs things down even further.

I’m not the biased apologist you might think I am, and I certainly have my gripes at the moment. I deal with the same delays, canceled flights, and endless telephone hold times that you do. But go back a year, to the height of the crisis, when nobody had any idea how or when things might improve, and the entire travel industry was hanging on for its life. Tell me what you would have done. Hating on airlines never goes out of style, and this latest mess, at least on the surface, smacks of short-sightedness and incompetence. It is, of course, more complicated than that.

For travelers, there’s not a lot you can do beyond the obvious. Check your airline’s app or website periodically for updates. Things should improve into early January, once the holiday push peters out.


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16 Responses to “Holiday Hell”
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  1. Daniel C Gless says:

    I would have taken the train…stayed home..or went to a smaller airport THAT MAYBE had things running better, at least shorter lines.
    Us? Me? We stayed home and enjoyed watching the lake freeze over.
    We are NOT flying anywhere till this craziness is over…if ever.

  2. Also, many other parts of the world have established, well-functioning alternatives to air travel, like rail networks or long-distance buses.
    In Europe, for example, plenty of flights have been cancelled as well, but if you want to go from Frankfurt to Stockholm or from Alicante to Paris, you can hop on a train instead. There is one every hour or two, it’s pretty fast and comfortable, and somehow their employees didn’t get infected that much. (There seems to be something to the cliché of airline staff partying and flirting all night, while the railroad folks are sound asleep. 😉 )

  3. Glenice says:

    Just wondering what is the best insurance to cover international travel and COVIDSafe

  4. Ruth Quinn says:

    I wish you would use word wrap so that I could read your articles on my phone.

  5. Yes, it does smack of “short-sightedness and incompetence”. Perhaps caused by greed and desire to please the shareholders.

    Why not schedule fewer flights, in advance and in accordance with crews and ground personnel available, instead of canceling them? The highly transmissible omikron emerged looong time ago, and coming winter covid/flu etc. surge was inevitable anyway.

    Why not allow only vaccinated + tested people to travel? Like it is required if one wants to fly into USA?

  6. Elizabeth Anne Matheson-Dameron says:

    I flew on December 28th, and I was lucky to get home. I kept checking the airline before going to the airport, and I was surprised my flight wasn’t canceled.

  7. wilson says:

    “… (rant and rave)…And THEN what?”


    As I said, airlines, forever highly-leveraged, have played this game and all its variations for a long, long time. So have the banks. The irony of “and THEN what?” betrays the gun held to the public’s head. And the fundamental grifting and fear of getting caught.

    It’s always Dog Day Afternoon with these airlines.

  8. wilson says:

    Yes, these airlines in USA used to be in and out of Chapter 11 like Trump is in and out of trouble. It’s all self-inflicted. And of course, the USA airlines have finally applied what the others have have always applied:get the stupids to bail them out. For the shareholders. For our exceptional America! This gun has always been held to America’s head. And when they whine about plastic eating tools being encased in plastic at the motel, or the cockroach, it’s just the usual misdirection.

    • Patrick says:

      What would you have preferred? That ALL of the U.S. airlines, with 90 percent of their business suddenly sucked away, simply be permitted to go out of business? All of them? Because that’s what would have happened. And THEN what?

  9. Lurk says:

    Roderick Rees> …the common management pursuit of Efficiency.

    Meant to say. Management and accountants often confuse short term cost saving with “efficiency”. An efficient organisation (or machine) is not necessarily the one operating at or near its limits. Brittle is perhaps a better description for such a system.

  10. Lurk says:

    Roderick Rees> …a serious study of how things could go wrong – a kind of Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA).

    An interesting idea, even more so given that RCM (Reliability Centred Maintenance) which is based solidly on FMEA studies/analyses originated in the aero industry. However, it came from the engineering side which generally has a longer term view and a keener appreciation of the cost of mistakes than the accounting side of the industry.

  11. Roderick Rees says:

    I’d like to add that a contributing factor is the common management pursuit of Efficiency. That is good in some contexts such as long invariant production runs, but in general efficiency is achievable only at the expense of flexibility and adaptability. In an industry whose environment is so variable, to demand efficiency is good only up to a point. It should be called for only if there has been a serious study of how things could go wrong – a kind of Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA).

  12. Simon says:

    Let me note here that about half of WORLDWIDE flight cancelations yesterday were in the US alone (1,550 out of 3,500 as per AP). So if Asian and European carriers seem to be faring better even though the entire world if faced with the same pandemic, it’s hard to argue that our domestic carriers aren’t at fault here. Apparently, our carriers chose to cut more jobs, operate with thinner margin for error, and sell more beyond capacity than their global piers. And they lost that risky wager. So now they will rightly face blame for that IMHO.

    What I take from this piece and the rest of the reporting I’ve seen is that airlines employ a vast staff of highly trained individuals that you cannot just recruit on a whim. Obviously, airlines require many sought out professionals that require months/years of training and onboarding. Faced with a rush of business, airlines that trimmed their staff below levels commensurate with their sales offerings, cannot quickly hire or train fill-ins. This seems fairly obvious to any observer/reader and must therefore also be crystal clear to any airline business executive. So the question then becomes: WHY IN THE HELL were airlines so quick to lay off so many skilled professionals and reduce staffing levels so swiftly and severely, when they know darn well they cannot easily reverse or correct that problem when the market turns? Maybe The Pilot can shed some additional light on this, but I find it hard to come up with any other word than folly.

    • Patrick says:

      There is some truth to this, absolutely. Just the same, I don’t know that it’s fair to compare U.S. domestic aviation (both the operational environment AND the competitive dynamics within) with that of other parts of the world.

  13. wilson says:

    A grim year-end review podcast indeed.

    I would have increased preventive and restorative maintenance of the planes rather than making the drastic and dangerous cuts. I would have stopped the lavish all-night mass-retirement parties over at the convention center. I would have placed thousands of highly-trained, super-secret ninja agents on the planes armed only with high tech stun guns, duct tape, and Play-Doh(tm). That’s the way you do it!

  14. Lurk says:

    > …smacks of short-sightedness and incompetence…

    Doesn’t strike me that way from where I am (UK), at least not at the level of businesses. It’s an overworked word, but unprecedented is a fair description of what’s going on. We’ve never had a virus spread around the world quite this quickly before and it can be a nasty one, even for people who are otherwise in good health, so high levels of disruption at unpredictable intervals seem quite unsurprising to me.

    What does surprise me is that people expect everything to to carry on as they did before and I am *astonished* that people expect to be able to travel easily for pleasure given the current state of things.