COVID continues to make air travel unpredictable, but carriers are in better shape than they were last year

Airlines cancelled thousands of flights during the holiday season due to staffing shortages and weather.

By Michael MarksDecember 29, 2021 11:35 am, , , ,

Air travel during the holidays always has the potential to be a logistical nightmare. But that was especially true this year, as carriers cancelled thousands of flights around Christmas.

Airlines tried to prepare for staffing shortages by offering incentives to pilots and flight attendants to work during the holidays. But many still called in sick. That, plus bad weather, stranded many would-be passengers.

Most major airlines are in better financial shape than they were this time last year though, according to Kyle Arnold, aviation reporter for The Dallas Morning News. He spoke to Texas Standard about the factors behind the delays, and what next year could hold for air travel.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I guess most of our listeners know that two of the country’s major air carriers are based right here in the Lone Star State – American and Southwest, and both have been burdened with labor troubles and cash flow issues. Is it clear these cancelations that so many travelers are experiencing right now are really about COVID? And I guess the weather is a factor, too?

Kyle Arnold: There are all sorts of issues, but the one thing that the airlines have told us is that it takes a lot more staff to make an airline run smoothly than it did before the pandemic. And they’re throwing a lot of bodies to make sure that people get on their flights and get there on time. But it’s still a struggle depending on what’s happening out there in the world with COVID, with weather, with technology and with anything else.

What about this guidance change from the CDC this week, basically shortening the amount of time that one should be in isolation if one is infected from its earlier recommendation of 10 days, down to five? Does that seem to be making a difference or is it too early to know yet?

It’s too early to know, yet. That came out just a few days ago. It has been a burden on airlines, especially because, with pilots and flight attendants, they’ve been really adamant about keeping them away from flights and infecting other people if they have COVID or if they’re exposed to somebody that has COVID.

So this guidance for asymptomatic COVID carriers should reduce it. But it’s unclear how much, and it’s unclear exactly how much COVID had to do with this and how much some other factors – seasonal flu and cold – might have impacted these recent delays and cancellations.

I think a lot of travelers who are frustrated are asking, couldn’t the airlines have done more to prepare for this contingency? We’ve been talking about omicron for a couple of weeks now.

Yeah, that’s a good question. They have done a lot. American Airlines and Southwest have offered some really big incentives to pilots and flight attendants, although the pilots, an American rejected those incentives because they’re in the middle of a contract negotiation. But they are throwing a lot of money at people to get them to work, just to make sure that they have everybody on staff. But as you saw, something like omicron really throws some problems into their planning, if they don’t see that coming. And we didn’t see omicron coming a month ago when they started making these plans.

You’ve got to figure this has to affect the bottom line for the air carriers, too. Can they pull out of this? This has been a rough year for Southwest and American and for some of the other majors too.

Yes, Southwest is actually predicting that they’ll be profitable this quarter, even without any government help. American and Southwest have both taken on debt – American up to more $50 billion worth. But the investors that are really paying attention to this seem confident that they’ll be able to make it through it. But we’ll see how long it actually takes for the airline industry to recover with business travel, with international travel.

We’re looking at 2022 in the short range. Are there any projections about what might be up ahead for the air carriers for 2022? I read somewhere that this could be a harbinger of what we may be seeing throughout next year. Is that what you’re hearing?

We went into 2021 with a lot of high hopes, thinking that there was going to be a big comeback in air travel. And there was. On a lot of days at the end of this year, [passenger numbers were] higher than in 2019, before we had this pandemic. So what we’re probably looking at next year is a lot of leisure travel like we’ve seen over the last two years. The big question is whether those international routes, whether those business travel routes – because business travelers tend to book later, they pay more for seats, they get upgrades – whether those people come back. And a lot of that depends on a return-to-office. A lot of that depends on the transmissibility of these viruses and in what our case counts are across the country. So we’re going to see a lot of people on airplanes and there’s going to be a lot of flights and a lot of people going to different places in the country. But whether airlines get back to that profit

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