Airlines say they’re prepared for busy holiday season, with 10% more pilots than pre-pandemic

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Airlines say they’re prepared for a busy holiday period as travel continues to ramp up. This comes against the backdrop of a summer marked by flight delays and cancellations. However, the industry says it has addressed staffing and flight schedules and it’s ready for the challenge.

Domestic airlines are hopeful for a smooth Thanksgiving travel week, as they have adjusted schedules and hiring needs to meet current flight demand; this is according to Airlines for America, which lobbies for major airlines including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines.

“U.S. airlines are going above and beyond to help you have a safe holiday travel season with more than two million people taking to the skies each day,” Sharon Pinkerton, a senior policy aide at A4A, said. The industry group remains hopeful ahead of next week, coming off a less-than-ideal summer when U.S. carriers canceled more than 59,000 flights and delayed nearly 630,000 others from May 1 through Aug. 31, per FlightAware data.

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Airlines are optimistic about holiday travel

In response to what A4A acknowledged as a “challenging summer,” airlines have reduced flight schedules and increased hiring efforts above pre-pandemic employment levels; there are 10% more pilots working for A4A carriers now than pre-pandemic, according to organization data.

“Airlines have reduced their schedules to make sure they have the resources and capacity for the entire travel schedule,” Pinkerton said, “… we are above our pre-pandemic levels of employment.”

In response to increased absenteeism among staff with COVID-19 still circulating and a general reluctance to work more overtime, airlines have also increased staff reserves. Even so, the group warned travelers that some issues could be hard to avoid. This could include the ever-present threat of poor weather or air traffic control constraints that have unusually throttled flight capacity at certain times during the past year.

“Absolutely airlines are ready now. What’s different is frankly the fact that we have hired thousands of more people,” Pinkerton continued. “Essentially we are well ahead in every staffing category … we got more folks on board, we’re going to continue hiring.”

Passenger volumes less than pre-pandemic levels

Though air travel traffic is recovering since global travel restrictions have been widely lifted, airlines don’t expect to see passenger volumes mirroring 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest; they noted a decline in passenger demand in places historically dependent on business and transpacific travel.

“We are seeing a dearth in long-haul international travel and corporate travel,” A4A chief economist John Heimlich said. “The demand for travel is strong, but not consistently back to 2019 [levels].”

Overall, passenger volumes have declined the least on the weekends, showing a shift toward leisure travel, according to Transportation Security Administration data cited by A4A. Heimlich added that weekends are not heavy travel days for business travelers, but are heavy travel days for leisure ones.

“We have some time for the pent-up demand to play out,” Heimlich said.

As travelers flock to airports across the country this week and into next, airports expect to see increased passenger volume per day compared to last year, starting as soon as Thursday.

For example, officials anticipate nearly 200,000 passengers per day at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Nov. 17 and Nov. 18 — the Thursday and Friday ahead of the actual Thanksgiving holiday. That’s roughly 20,000 more passengers per day compared to the same time last year, but just 80% to 90% of 2019 numbers, per an LAX spokesperson.

“People are spreading their travel throughout the week, which I also think will help ensure smoother operations,” Pinkerton said.

Chicago-based United Airlines anticipates more than 5.5 million passengers during the same time period — up 12% from 2021 — with 90% of flights compared to 2019 flight schedules.

“We’re on track to hire 15,000 employees this year including pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers and customer service agents to help support our growing operation,” United said via email. “We anticipate Sunday, Nov. 27 will be United’s busiest travel day since before the pandemic with more than 460,000 people expected to fly with us.”

Additional reporting by Meghna Maharishi.