A Perfect Storm of Problems Has Airline Employees Bracing For an Especially Hellish Holiday Travel Season

Celeste Pasqua Pearce, an American Airlines pilot, knew that it would be difficult to start the holiday season. A flight attendant stole a seat in first class from a child traveling with his parents on a long Thanksgiving weekend flight. Although the parents paid for the seats, the attendant wanted to make sure that there was enough space for more people on board. She didn’t even ask; she just told the parents she was taking it. It was short, though: John F. Kennedy Airport – Miami International Airport. However, it left parents unhappy with their child who became suddenly and unintentionally a lap-child. “I am sure that they will be refunded for the seat, but they weren’t happy about the last minute-change,” says Pasqua Pearce.
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The “most wonderful time of year” is anything but that for passengers and flight crews this holiday season, and the list of grievances is already piling up: oversold flights, cancelled flights, understaffed planes and airports, last-minute equipment changes, stressed flight crews, and belligerent travelers. Add in Omicron’s skyrocketing cases and the constant changes to vaccine dates and rules, and there is little laughter.

“The variant. It’s like pulling the rug out. What’s going to happen next?” says Pasqua Pearce. “It’s the new variant, it’s being short staffed. It’s a lot of things that make it especially hard flying right now.” It’s good for Pasqua Pearce that her second job is moonlighting as a yoga instructor. “I do yoga on a layover or if I’ve had a very long day. I definitely do some deep breathing,” she says.

She considers herself to be one of the lucky ones as a pilot. “I get to close the door,” she says. The flight attendants, who often have to face violent passengers and disruptive passengers, are at the forefront of this situation.

Federal Air Marshals teach self defense to aircrew members in Los Angeles
Hans Gutknecht / Getty ImagesMari-Zelle Cefre is a Delta Airlines employee. She works with a technique at a self-defense course. Federal Air Marshals presented a self-defense class for commercial airline crew in Los Angeles on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. After the class, Marshals provided basic self defense and put the skills to the test in a simulated aircraft.

Since November 30, 2005, the FAA has received 5,433 unruly passenger reports, 3923, of which were mask-related. These reports were the basis for 1,017 investigations.

With the federal mask mandate for transportation currently scheduled to remain in effect until January 18, 2022, these incidents aren’t expected to go away any time soon and definitely not before the holiday travel season gets in full swing.

Thom McDaniel is a Southwest Airlines flight attendant who also serves as International vice president of Transport Workers Union of America. He says that the federal vaccine mandate makes it more difficult for flight workers. There have been numerous changes to the deadline and legal challenges in various cities and courts against its implementation, which has put it under question. “I think all of the airlines and I certainly know that all of the unions are kind of waiting to see what the final disposition is going to be on this. When the mandate was made, it wasn’t very clear, and everybody just started trying to implement it in their own way,” he says. “And now I feel like a lot of what’s happening is people are just waiting to see what’s actually going to end up being the final product.”

For American Airlines Premium Guest Services representative Victoria Kuhns, what ultimately happens with the federal mandate won’t affect her job. She is based at San Francisco International Airport in American Airlines Admirals Club, and back in September, San Francisco’s mayor London Breed announced that all contractors with the county were required to either be fully vaccinated or receive a medical or religious exemption and get tested weekly. Kuhns couldn’t think of one individual who hadn’t vaccinated. “Our manager has gotten some reports that the number of people vaccinated has increased within the airline since this has come about,” she says.

Kuhns was able fly over Thanksgiving holiday, which is a time she wouldn’t normally get to travel. However, she did so after being able to book the flights that she desired despite her having to standby for work. She was surprised to discover that everything went smoothly. However, she does know of one coworker that cancelled her plans to travel for the holidays out of fear of being unable to go home. “She was hoping to go to the Christmas markets. She was first going to Germany, and then she changed it to France, and then it was back to the northern part of Germany and Ireland,” says Kuhns. “She ended up never going. The complexity and the number of variables made it too difficult. You don’t want to go there, and then all of a sudden they change the rules, and then you’re stuck.”

But it’s not just about changing health rules. It’s also flights being short-staffed and cancellations and flight changes, says Southwest’s McDaniel. “There’s lot of tension. A lot of people were unable to work during the pandemic. Many passengers had time off as well. They didn’t do a lot of flying,” he says. “What they are coming back to is a pretty hectic situation with the airlines trying to ramp up and get their flying back to where it was. But they don’t really have the staffing to do that, which has created just really intense delays and a lot of problems in the airports.”

If it’s the airline that cancels your flight, you are eligible for a refund, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But if you are considering making the changes yourself, you’ll need to check with your particular airline for their latest cancellation or change policies given the rise of the omicron variant. Delta Air Lines, for example, allows passengers who have basic economy tickets to change their flights without any fees or cancel for credit. This applies to flights that originate in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. American Airlines’ basic economy tickets purchased after April 1st 2021 are non-refundable and cannot be changed.

For Alaska Airlines pilot Peter Gbelia, Thanksgiving travel felt surprisingly close to “back to normal” and there were fewer hitches than he expected. It helped that there was no severe weather. Additionally, a smaller airline is more reliable: there are fewer cancellations or delays.

Gbelia said that most passengers followed all rules. “But one or two people can make the flight miserable for everyone,” he says. Mask compliance has been a major problem. “It’s hard to understand. One person will don their mask while they wait in airport security, go through check in and to TSA, then to board the plane. And then once they get on the airplane, they won’t. Why now?”

Gbelia noticed an increase in holiday-flyers this year. “Passengers are less courteous, less polite, more needy. They seem to be on edge,” he says. But it’s not just them. “The flight crews are on edge as well. Our flight attendants are very professional and nice and courteous, but it’s just a burden for them to always have to bend over backwards to try and please people.”

McDaniel said that flight attendants are not surprised by their frustration. “It’s not the job that we’re used to doing. It’s become so much harder, and some people are just not enjoying it as much, so they’re just choosing not to work as much.” This, combined with furloughs and early retirement due to the pandemic, is leaving airlines short-staffed and those flight attendants who are still working being asked to work longer shifts and more of them.

McDaniel likes to remind people that, as first responders, flight attendants’ jobs are to keep people safe and secure. “We honestly believe that when we go to work, we should be able to go home safely to our families. And that’s a reasonable expectation for any job,” he says.

This is his advice for holiday travelers who are preparing to fly under friendly skies. “You might want to pack your patience and pack a snack and just remember that the people who are on that plane are there to keep you safe. We’re just doing our job, and all we expect is for you to let us do our job. We will take care of you if you take care of us.”


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