The razor-thin staffing that contributed to thousands of canceled U.S. passenger flights in October doesn’t bode well for smooth holiday travel.
American Airlines Group Inc. scrapped about 1,900 flights since Saturday, including 350 Monday, as cancellations continued to ripple from the disruption of flights by high winds that started Friday at its main hub near Dallas. Just three weeks ago, Southwest Airlines Co. sparked customer ire when it canceled 3,100 flights over four days because of storms and interrupted air traffic control. Southwest said it needed to hire more workers to ward off more disruptions.
Airlines have been caught off guard by the rapid rebound of travel demand and the need to staff up enough to serve them after tens of thousands took early retirement or extended leaves during the pandemic. It’s likely to happen to American Airlines again as traffic picks up for the holidays, said Dennis Tajer, an American captain and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association union.
“We are very concerned about the upcoming holiday travel season,” Tajer said in a telephone interview. “They are setting up all the dominoes. All it’s going to take is the finger tip of Mother Nature to send those tumbling.”
For American, those dominoes were toppled last week, when three out of the five runways at Dallas/Fort Worth International airport were closed because of high winds. The airline said it canceled 1,060 flights Sunday — nearly 21% of its schedule, and more than 10% for the period of Oct. 29 through Monday morning.
The American Airlines cancellations Monday include six flights into or out of Detroit Metro Airport, according to FlightAware, a third-party tracker. The cancellations represent 28% of the airline’s flights for the airport.
Airline schedules are complex and interdependent, which means delays can ripple through the system and grow in magnitude as they do. Because federal law restricts how many hours a pilot may work, it means that substitute flight crews will be needed if flights run too late. If backup crews are in short supply — particularly at the end of a month — airlines have no choice but to cancel flights.
The disruption at American continued into Monday as the carrier worked to get its schedule back in order, with the company saying it had 302 cancellations, or 5.4% of its schedule. The carrier’s shares rose less than 1% to $19.32 at 10:13 a.m. in New York.
Last week saw the highest average daily number of passengers outside of brief holiday-weekend peaks since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to Transportation Security Administration data. The average was about 1.8 million daily for the seven days through Saturday, or about 84% of the equivalent week in 2019.
The airline networks are more “brittle” because of staff cuts after the pandemic and lockdowns reduced passenger counts, said Samuel Engel, senior vice president of the aviation group at consultant ICF. He also cited a different mix of traveler — more tourists and fewer business passengers — that may not match up with staffing at airports. Miami is getting more flights now than Cleveland, for example, he said. Plus, he said, the weather is also getting more extreme, which increases cancellations.
“The underlying forces are going to be with us for a while,” Engel said. “The airline management will get more and more adept at mitigating the impacts.”
American is hiring pilots, flight attendants and support staff to prepare for more passengers, Chief Operating Officer David Seymour wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to employees. The airline had almost 1,800 flight attendants returning from leave beginning Monday and another 600 newly hired will be on the job by the end of December. The company is also bringing on 4,000 support workers during the final three months of the year, he wrote.
“We continue to staff up across our entire operation and we will see more of our team returning in the coming months,” Seymour said in the letter.
The plan to hire workers is easier said than done, union spokesman Tajer said. American wants to add more than 2,500 pilots but there’s a lack of instructors and flight simulators to do that quickly. Support staff is difficult to find because of a general labor shortage and rising wages for competing jobs, he said.
“We don’t know how in the world they make 2 plus 2 equal 10,” Tajer said.
Detroit News Staff Writer Candice Williams and Bloomberg’s Mary Schlangenstein contributed.
Once you discover your day will be miserable, whatever you do, do not go to the airport sports bar. Do not order a Moscow mule and a mediocre burger, and do not end up eavesdropping on the conversations around you. These are going to distract you from the task at hand. Yes, it’s very interesting to hear two strangers bonding over the fact that they’ve both lived in San Antonio. Yes, you want to see if they’ll keep taking shots. No, it’s not worth it. Get to your mission: resuscitating your travel plan.
“If you have checked a bag and then you get to the gate and your flight gets canceled or delayed, it’s going to be more difficult to get switched to a different flight,” he says. “If there’s another flight that’s leaving 15 minutes from now or 20 minutes from now, your bag is not going to make it.”
The New Orleans Saints’ preseason finale against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday has been canceled “due to the impending impact of Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast region,” the team said in a statement on Friday. The Saints will travel to Dallas on Saturday to get ahead of the storm and will remain there through Wednesday, holding practices at AT&T Stadium, a source told The Athletic.
“Due to the intensification of the hurricane throughout the day and after the most recent tropical update, the team’s leadership has made the decision in the best interests of all personnel that may have been directly and indirectly affected by the storm,” the statement from the Saints said.
Earlier Friday, kickoff for the game at Caesars Superdome was moved up seven hours to avoid any complications from the hurricane potentially headed toward New Orleans. The Saints said the eventual cancellation “comes after constant communications with City of New Orleans officials, the National Weather Service, Homeland Security, Governor Edwards and leading state officials and the National Football League.”
Ida, which strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane on Friday, is supposed to hit southern Louisiana on Sunday night, with New Orleans already in a hurricane watch. There is a possibility it could turn into a Category 3 hurricane by the time it makes landfall.
The city has fallen victim to hurricanes in the past. Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5, wreaked havoc in New Orleans and the surrounding areas in August 2005, causing more than 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage. Last year, Hurricane Zeta hit New Orleans in October and team coaches and officials stayed at the Saints’ facility.
(Photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)
AP National Sports
SHANGHAI, China (AP) — The LPGA Tour says the Buick LPGA Shanghai tournament scheduled for mid-October has been canceled due to ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions. The tournament was scheduled for the Qizhong Garden Golf Club from October 14-17. There are two tournaments scheduled for the following weeks in Asia — the BMW Ladies Championship in Busan, South Korea from October 21-24, and the TOTO Japan Classic in Otsu, Japan, from November 4-7. Another tournament scheduled for the week in between those two events, the Taiwan Swinging Skirts at Taipei, has already been canceled due to similar COVID-19 restrictions.
The LPGA Tour said in a statement Wednesday that the Buick LPGA Shanghai tournament scheduled for mid-October has been canceled due to ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The tournament was scheduled for the Qizhong Garden Golf Club from Oct. 14-17.
There are two tournaments scheduled for the following weeks in Asia, the BMW Ladies Championship in Busan, South Korea from Oct. 21-24, and the TOTO Japan Classic in Otsu, Japan, from Nov. 4-7.
Another tournament scheduled for the week in between those two events, the Taiwan Swinging Skirts at Taipei, has already been canceled due to similar COVID-19 restrictions.
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Three months ago, Jackie Henderson of Oregon finally felt comfortable enough with the country’s COVID-19 case counts to book a trip with her husband and three kids to a family reunion in Pennsylvania.
Their trip, scheduled for later this month, has since been canceled. Henderson said her family didn’t feel safe traveling with their kids, all of whom are too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I just thought flying six hours on a plane is like being in a petri dish, and then we’re going to walk into this family reunion with about 80 people, and the majority of them are over age 65,” Henderson said. “I just really didn’t feel like it was responsible for us to do that.”
Henderson joins a growing number of travelers who have been second-guessing plans amid a surge in COVID cases. About one-third of American travelers surveyed by marketing firms Longwoods International and Miles Partnership have postponed travel because of the delta variant, compared to a quarter of travelers two weeks prior, according to the Aug. 4 survey of 1,000 adults.
“Even a little bit of a dip here is concerning for businesses that have already been in a difficult position,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association trade group. “I think we’re still very optimistic, and there is still a strong desire for folks to be out there … but we need to get back to a more-consistent state.”
Hotels, airlines noticing more cancellations
Optimism around travel has plummeted since early June, hitting a year-to-date low of 20.4% as of Aug. 6, according to surveys of more than 1,200 American travelers from research firm Destination Analysts.
The firm’s most-recent report found over half of American respondents expect travel to get worse in the U.S. over the next month, and 23% canceled travel plans because of the delta variant.
That attitude shift comes as COVID-19 cases spike across the country, with the highly contagious delta variant making up more than 80% of all cases as of the end of July, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Airlines and hotels are starting to feel the effects.
On Thursday, hotel research firm STR eased its growth projections for 2022, citing a lack of business travel to supersede leisure travel as the summer winds down.
“With more concern around the delta variant as well as delays in companies returning their employees to offices, it’s possible that businesses wait until early 2022 to put their people back on the road,” STR president Amanda Hite said in a news release.
Marriott International spokeswoman Julie Rollend told USA TODAY that the company has seen some cancellations for group bookings later this year that could be related to the spread of the delta variant, but added that cancellations have “slowed significantly” compared to earlier in the pandemic.
Southwest Airlines’ outlook for third-quarter revenues dipped after the company noticed an increase in trip cancellations in August, according to a Wednesday filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company pinned it on the rise of COVID-19 cases.
Glenn Fogel, president and CEO of Booking Holdings Inc., told USA TODAY that the company saw a “modest pullback” in July’s booking trends compared to June, but noted that bookings were still up from the second quarter.
“When infections were going up because of delta, you would see cancellations in those particular areas (with more COVID-19 cases),” Fogel said. “But it doesn’t change the long term at all. The long term is, pandemics all end. They do. This will end, too.”
Southwest and AAA have both recently noted that Labor Day travel remains strong despite the uptick in COVID-19 cases, and other travel executives have echoed Fogel’s long-term optimism, including United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby.
“Certainly, over the medium to the long term there’ll be some ups and downs, but I think that air travel is going to continue to recover,” Kirby told NBC Nightly News earlier this week. “The silver lining of what has happened with the delta variant is it’s driving much higher vaccination rates across the country, and at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s going to really get us out of this crisis.”
A little over half of all people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.
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Travelers’ response to COVID delta variant
While many Americans will follow through with plans, the way they travel has changed.
Kyle Baker, 26 of Kansas City, Kansas, has been to Las Vegas four times and Florida once since being fully vaccinated but draws the line at cruises, especially now that COVID-19 cases are up. While he had been considering a cruise trip in December 2019, Baker said watching the COVID-19 outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship unfold in February 2020 was “terrifying.”
“That makes my anxiety go crazy,” he said. “Even at the very beginning of COVID, I was of the mindset of, I’m not going to do a cruise, I wasn’t going to go out of the country. … I’m just scared I won’t be able to get back easily.”
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Others, like 74-year-old Doris Wright, feel perfectly safe on cruises thanks to their heightened safety protocols. Wright plans to take a 21-day cruise in October.
“I am confident in the new protocols the cruise lines have set up to combat this variant,” she wrote to USA TODAY. “I’m a world traveler and I have been going (nuts) without travel.”
Nicholas Sanford of Charlotte, North Carolina, plans to go to Greece with his partner later this month, despite the hassle of having to complete additional COVID-related forms to enter and test for COVID before returning.
He added that the two are vaccinated and “regular mask wearers,” which makes him feel more at ease despite reported COVID-19 breakthrough cases.
COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, but a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19 if exposed to the virus that causes it, according to the CDC. Vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die.
“When we purchased the tickets, we were both vaccinated, so we felt really confident that this would be fine. … Now with the delta variant, there’s just more anxiety around the trip,” Sanford said. “Our tickets are nonrefundable, so at this point we’re going to go and we’re just crossing our fingers.”
Is it safe to travel during the delta surge?
Amber Schmidtke of Kansas City, who is an associate professor of biology at the University of Saint Mary and former CDC employee, postponed a family vacation to Hawaii two weeks ago.
The vacation was booked in March, and Schmidtke expected a pediatric vaccination to be approved by this point. Without it, she said she doesn’t feel comfortable traveling with her unvaccinated child.
Children 12 and older in the U.S. can receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but clinical trials on vaccinations among younger children are still ongoing.
“The risks (to travel with an unvaccinated child) just felt much worse than they did a year ago,” Schmidtke said. “The thought of being in a high-risk environment, potentially an airport terminal … it seemed like a bridge too far.”
►Travel alert: CDC, State Department downgrade travel alerts for Canada
Health experts say travel risks can vary based on many factors, such as vaccination status and the destination’s transmission rates.
In an interview with the USA TODAY Editorial Board last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said travelers should follow CDC guidance and restrict themselves to only necessary travel.
The CDC recommends all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks and self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms. If they’re traveling internationally, fully vaccinated travelers should also get tested three to five days after travel. Unvaccinated people traveling both domestically and internationally are advised to get tested one to three days before and three to five days after travel and self-quarantine 7 days after returning.
Contributing: Jennifer Portman, USA TODAY. Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.