Understandably, Maliha Aziz was nervous about the November 19 trip from St Louis, Missouri, to her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, for her nephew’s wedding.
Aziz, a former principal of an Islamic Sunday school in St. Louis, and her husband traveled to three weddings during the summer and experienced many flight delays and cancellations.
One Friday in June, they were stuck on a street at the St. Louis airport for more than two hours and missed a rehearsal dinner in Omaha. While at the wedding, Aziz received a text message informing her that the airline had canceled their return flight and rebooked them for a flight more than 24 hours later.
“None of these were pleasant walks,” said Aziz, 61, who lives in a suburb of St. Louis. “Even simple trips, when they should not have any problems, either they did not have enough crew to fly the plane, or the plane is there, but they do not have enough crew, or the luggage is in the plane, and it can not get out because they do not have enough staff. “
Aziz’s summer travel experience and worries about Thanksgiving – she flies back to the US on November 28 – are not unique among the tens of millions of people who hope to see friends and family on their annual holiday.
This is because while it is expected that people will again travel at levels similar to a pre-pandemic Thanksgiving, airlines are still struggling with staff shortages, which could lead to more flight cancellations.
“It does not really matter if a travel disruption comes from a lack of staffing or a lack of routes or weather, it is still something that is very frustrating for customers,” said Lindsey Roeschke, travel and hospitality analyst for Morning Consult, a market research firm.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, bookings of Thanksgiving flights in the US are up 78% from 2020 and 3.2% from 2019, according to an Adobe Digital Economy Index report published earlier this month.
“When it’s busy, it’s very possible [flights] will be over capacity – and that means that the possibility of things going wrong is very high, “said Narendra Khatri, principal of Insubuy, a travel insurance company.
During the Halloween weekend, American Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights due to weather and manning issues. In a letter to employees, David Seymour, CEO of the airline, described the weekend as a “short irregular period of operation” and said that “on the planning front, we have made sure that November and December are built to meet customer demand and that they are fully supportive of our crew ”.
Southwest Airlines also canceled hundreds of flights over an October weekend.
Both airlines have since offered employees increased pay for working over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.
A union representing American Airlines’ flight attendants accepted an offer of 150% pay for flying during high holiday periods and an additional 150% pay for escorts who do not report sick between 15 November and 2 January.
But a union representing American Airlines pilots rejected an offer of 50% additional pay on high holiday days, partly due to pilots’ frustrations with the airline’s scheduling system.
When the weather forces a cancellation, the airline has struggled to fix the schedule, which has led to further cancellations, said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the airline’s pilots’ union.
The union would like to see the airline give pilots more flexibility to change planes, so that when a pilot flight from St Louis to Dallas is canceled, a pilot can already in Texas pick up the pilot’s next flight from Dallas. This can often not happen due to problems in the information technology system and limits on how much a pilot can fly each month, Tajer said.
A spokesman for American Airlines declined a request for an interview.
“This recovery has really pulled back the covers of American Airlines’ infrastructure problems,” said Tajer, who is also a pilot. “We know where the solutions are – they probably have solutions – but they are not even willing to talk about them.”
Despite the uncertainty, not all analysts predict that Thanksgiving will be a mess.
In the wake of the cancellation of Halloween weekend, Seymour reassured employees that nearly 1,800 flight attendants had returned from leave and that the airline would hire 600 new flight attendants by the end of December.
Mike Malik, marketing manager at Cirium, an aviation data company, attributes the airlines’ breakdowns in October to the fact that some companies “wound up too fast” when air traffic slowed down. As people have begun to travel again, they are still working through difficulties in trying to meet that demand, he said.
“The hits that have been taken in the last month or so, the airlines have adjusted for that, and I think they are very prepared for Thanksgiving,” said Malik.
Ajay Jain, a 23-year-old software engineer, also has confidence in American Airlines despite recent problems. He follows the industry closely through social media and websites such as Points Guy and has booked seven flights with the airline before the end of the year, with the goal of achieving gold status by 2022, which means he will receive free upgrades.
He has flown around 30 times since he started traveling again after being fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and has not had his flight canceled. But in May, he missed an American Airlines flight from Austin to Dallas when a reservation system for Saber, a technology company, went down.
Jain was able to catch a flight an hour later, but other passengers’ plans were more disrupted. Jain said he explained to someone what had happened, that it was not American Airlines’ fault, and they calmed down.
This has not always been the case during the pandemic – and the hectic holiday scene at airports can prove to be particularly volatile. Passengers have yelled at and assaulted the flight attendants when asked to put on the mask. Others have spent hours on the phone trying to rebook canceled flights.
Finally, Aziz, the former Sunday School principal, and her husband came to Karachi without any problems. They were looking forward to the wedding, even though it would only have around 200 people – compared to more than 700 for her Pakistani family’s wedding in non-Covid times. Before the return flight on November 28, they must find out where to get a Covid test, which is required for passengers entering the United States.
“We ask that we do not want to miss the flight from Chicago to [St Louis]”, Aziz sent a text message from Pakistan.