Air travel is no holiday as COVID and storms cancel flights

Heading into the New Year’s weekend, when return flights
will produce another crest in air travel, airlines have been cancelling more
than 1,000 flights a day to, from or within the United States. Carriers and
their employees say the latest chapter of the pandemic, the omicron variant,
has cut deeply into the ability to staff flights, even though a vast majority
of crew members are vaccinated.

“I’ve never seen a meltdown like this in my life,” said
Angelo Cucuzza, director of organising at the Transport Workers Union, which
represents flight attendants at JetBlue. “They just can’t keep up with the
amount of folks that are testing positive.”

JetBlue has been one of the airlines hardest hit, cancelling
17% of its flights Thursday, according to the air travel data site FlightAware.
The carrier said Wednesday that it would cut about 1,280 flights through
mid-January, citing the rise in virus cases in the Northeast, where its
operations and crews are concentrated.

And then there was the weather, always a volatile element in
holiday travel but particularly challenging in recent days — notably in the
Pacific Northwest, where heavy snowfall and record low temperatures grounded
planes this past weekend.

The next few days may be just as frustrating. Storms in
Southern California and the Northwest could combine to dump snow on airline
hubs in Denver and Chicago, with severe thunderstorms threatening Dallas Fort
Worth International Airport, too, according to Dan DePodwin, director of
forecast operations at AccuWeather.

Alaska Airlines, whose main hub is Seattle-Tacoma
International Airport, suggested that people put off nonessential travel until
the new year. The carrier was hit hard again Thursday, with 14% of its flights
cancelled, as Seattle got more snow.

As many as 10 million people may fly from Thursday through
Monday, according to Transportation Security Administration estimates. For
months, airlines have been preparing reserves of workers for the holiday crush.
But those measures were inadequate in a fast-changing situation, and many
passengers were frustrated.

“Even though it’s been two years with COVID, it does not
seem like they have this figured out,” said Sabine Malloy, whose plan to
rendezvous with her boyfriend in Alaska to see the northern lights was upended
Tuesday when both their flights on Delta Air Lines — hers from Southern California,
his from Denver — were cancelled. Delta told them that it could not rebook them
for several days, she said, so they cancelled their plans — after her boyfriend
had driven seven hours from South Dakota for his flight.

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Trying to change plans before departing was also daunting. A
traveller trying to rebook a family trip on American Airlines encountered a
recording saying to expect a four-hour wait for a callback from an agent.

Some say airlines shoulder some of the blame for the
turmoil. The industry received $54 billion in federal aid to keep workers
employed throughout the pandemic, assistance that came with a ban on layoffs.
But carriers were able to thin their ranks by offering buyouts and
early-retirement packages to thousands of workers.

Airlines started hiring again as the travel rebound took off
this year, but most have yet to fully restore their workforces: The industry
employed nearly 413,000 people in October, down almost 9% from the same month
in 2019, according to federal data. Airlines have had trouble turning a profit
as passenger volumes remain about 15% below pre-pandemic levels.

The industry looked to the Centres for Disease Control and
Prevention in recent days for a partial solution to its staffing problems,
lobbying for the 10-day isolation period recommended for those infected with
the coronavirus to be reduced to five days. Some scientists, unaffiliated with
airlines, made a similar suggestion to bolster strained workforces in other
sectors, like hospitals.

On Monday, the CDC shifted its guidance to five days of
isolation for people whose symptoms have ended or are abating, followed by five
days wearing a mask. The agency said the change was motivated by findings that
the coronavirus was mostly transmitted one to two days before symptoms appear
and two to three days afterwards.

On Tuesday, in a memo seen by The New York Times, JetBlue
told employees that it would expect those “who have no symptoms, or whose
symptoms are improving, to come back to work after five days.” Crew members may
remain on leave if they provide a doctor’s note, but they won’t be paid as if
they were working, according to Cucuzza of the Transport Workers Union.

Asked for comment, JetBlue said, “The health and safety of
our crew members and customers remains our top priority as we work through this

Delta is providing five days’ sick leave for infected
workers, with two additional paid sick days if they choose to be tested on Day
5 and the results are positive.

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The shorter isolation time is fuelling a debate in the
industry. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly
50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, urged maintaining a 10-day isolation
period in a letter to airlines Tuesday.

“We believe this is the wrong move for aviation as it
accepts that infectious people will be put back on the job or flying as
passengers on our planes,” Sara Nelson, the union’s president, wrote. Several
flight attendants interviewed expressed concerns that potentially contagious
colleagues might return to work without being tested.

Airlines always prepare for turmoil, particularly around the
holidays, when bad winter weather in one place can knock an entire system off
balance. But the industry has been hit especially hard this year.

After two airlines, American and Southwest, cancelled
thousands of flights in October because of fierce weather and a brief shortage
of air traffic controllers, they vowed to address the problems, offering
bonuses to encourage employees to work throughout the holiday period, stepping
up hiring and pruning flight plans. Both have avoided widespread cancellations
this holiday season.

“We realized that we have got to make sure that we have
staffing in place,” said David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer. The
airline recalled several thousand flight attendants from leave last month and
this month and hired almost 600 more.

When chaos strikes, airlines engage in a complicated
choreography to get out of it.

The main goal, airlines and aviation experts say, is to
minimise the effect on passengers. But that’s easier said than done.

Alaska Airlines spent months laying plans for this holiday
season, investing in staff and equipment to deal with the winter weather and
lining up backup flight crews, according to Constance von Muehlen, its chief
operating officer.

The airline managed staff calling in sick at high rates by
offering extra pay for others to fill in, but sustained snowfall and record low
temperatures in the Seattle area forced it to cancel nearly one-third of its
flights Sunday, about one-quarter Monday and about one-fifth Tuesday.

“Once you get your day off poorly, there’s nothing you can
do to catch up,” von Muehlen said.

On Tuesday, the airline issued a stark announcement. Alaska
would cut about 20% of flights out of Seattle in the coming days to allow extra
time to de-ice planes. It also “strongly” urged customers to delay nonessential
travel until after this weekend.

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“Our values guided our decision,” von Muehlen said. “We need
to be as realistic as possible in what we will be able to operate and to let
people know, as difficult as it is for us to do that.”

Getting flight crews in place can be especially tricky, with
workers dispersed throughout the country and subject to various regulations.
Flight attendants are generally required to have nine hours of rest between
shifts, for example.

The omicron variant has only confounded that already
complicated process.

Capt. James Belton, a spokesperson for the roughly 13,500
United Airlines pilots in the Air Line Pilots Association, confirmed that the
variant is creating challenges.

“Our sick calls are above normal,” he said. Many pilots have
helped fill gaps by picking up additional shifts, he said, but they are limited
to flying 100 hours a month under federal law.

Operations on the ground are also being affected. The
Federal Aviation Administration warned Thursday that rising infections among
employees, including air traffic control staff, might result in delays.

The Transportation Security Administration said that it was
concerned about rising virus infections, too, but that it had adequate
staffing. Average wait times in airport security lines were about five minutes
in recent days, a spokesperson said.

Getting through security, of course, is no guarantee that
the rest of the trip will be smooth.

Elizabeth Barnhisel and her husband were heading off on a
delayed honeymoon when a cance[led connection forced an unexpected overnight
layover Tuesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Entering a baggage
claim area, they found what looked like hundreds of bags lined up and crowds of
miserable people — some crying, some napping, because they had been waiting so
long for their bags.

Every few hours, someone would offer a different reason for
the fiasco: frozen carousels, omicron, weather. After about 10 hours,
Barnhisel’s bag arrived from across the airport.

The couple eventually made it to their destination,
Vancouver, but it was not the honeymoon experience Barnhisel had counted on.
“We’re flabbergasted,” she said. “We definitely took a risk by taking this
trip. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to get back to normal somehow.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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