Air travel in the post-COVID-vaccine era has been an exercise in patience, with ongoing operational meltdowns spoiling the excitement of getting back out into the world.
After several consecutive busy travel seasons marred by delays and cancellations that left passengers missing the holidays or stranded for days, the big question on many travelers’ minds is: Will this year’s holiday period be better, or are we in for another bumpy ride?
Ultimately, it depends on a few scenarios, said Robert W. Mann, an aviation consultant and former airline executive. However, he’s cautiously optimistic.
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“They seem to have priced it for perfection,” he said, noting higher fares that are nonetheless being met by strong demand. “That ought to give them an incentive to do a good job.”
Many of the issues that were at the root of the previous meltdowns have been addressed, at least partially.
Airlines learned a humbling lesson about their ability to meet demand with tight margins and consequently slashed their capacity this summer. This freed up aircraft and crew members to help recover during irregular operations — preventing unavoidable things like weather-related delays from spiraling into days-long sagas of stranded passengers.
The emergence of the Omicron variant and its rapid spread also contributed to the disruptions during last year’s Christmas and New Year’s travel periods, combined with severe weather across the country.
Since the meltdowns earlier in 2022, however, airlines have had time to rebuild their depleted ranks, at least to a degree.
“They’ve had six more months to put together hiring plans,” Mann said.
Connor Cunningham, an airline analyst at Melius Research, also appears to be optimistic, pointing out in an Oct. 10 research note that airlines have largely managed to get things under control.
“The operational issues that plague the group have largely subsided as airlines provided more slack to their networks,” Cunningham wrote.
Still, the potential for a holiday mess is always there. One major headwind this year: holiday timing.
Pulling off holiday flying schedules typically relies on airline employees picking up extra hours and trips, often with high bonuses attached.
This year, Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 24, earlier than usual. That means the holiday period — stretching from the days before Thanksgiving through New Year’s — is longer than normal. This could put a strain on airline crew resources, requiring more hours worked in total than usual.
“Holiday timing could also provide headwinds given the elongated period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, among other timing anomalies,” Cunningham wrote.
On the other hand, during a recent conference call with investors, Delta executives framed the extended holiday period as being helpful for managing its operation.
“I think you’re going to see a more normalized flow than you typically do,” CEO Ed Bastian said during the call. “Holidays tend to be very peaky on the highest days and lighter on some of the lower travel days. With travelers having a lot more flexibility and mobility relative to work, I think you’re going to see a busy period for the Thanksgiving week throughout the week,” rather than primarily on Wednesday, Bastian said.
“That’s going to help us operationally a bit as well, managing flow,” he added. “I think you’ll also see that over the Christmas-New Year’s break as well.”
As is the case every year, with the holidays coming toward the end of their respective months — when many employees have already fulfilled their obligatory hours — airlines could have trouble convincing employees to pick up extra assignments.
“That’s just the toughest time for crew availability,” Mann said.
Last year, airlines offered extra incentives, such as premium pay rates and bonuses, for employees to work holiday shifts, and Mann expects that tool to be helpful this year.
“I think there’s a realization that they’re going to have to incentivize volunteerism, so to speak,” Mann said. “And that’s a change. Historically, volunteerism was both expected and not paid at a premium.”
Still, the extra pay might not be enough to fully cover staffing needs, Mann said.
“There’s a limit to [incentivizing] volunteerism,” he noted. “You’re going to get people who respond to that because of the money, but there are some people that, frankly, aren’t interested in the extra money over the holidays — they’re more interested in being home with their families.”
Even though the airlines appear to be generally more prepared for this holiday season, there’s unfortunately never a guarantee of things going smoothly.
“It really just comes down to external factors like weather,” Mann said, “whether that uses up additional crew time earlier in the month, or whether that may occur over the holiday period itself.”
If things do go wrong, TPG has guides on what to do during delays and cancellations, so be sure to check out our tips: