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The perfect storm: The last 2 weeks have been rough for the airline industry


Airlines have canceled more than a thousand flights again today, even though a widespread snowstorm that paralyzed travel in parts of the Midwest and Eastern U.S. has moved on. NPR's David Schaper explains why airlines are struggling right now to get through yet another turbulent period.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Back before Christmas, even before heavy snow began to fall in some parts of the country, Kathleen Bangs of the flight-tracking firm FlightAware says airlines began to realize they had a mounting problem.

KATHLEEN BANGS: The first domino began with a statement released from United Airlines saying, we think we're going to have to cancel at least a hundred flights, in part due to employees being sick, mainly flight crew staffing that are testing positive for the omicron variant.

SCHAPER: Soon, other airlines put out similar statements. And on the day before Christmas, with few weather problems across the country, airlines canceled nearly 700 flights. Every day since, the number of delays and cancellations has grown, according to FlightAware. And then nasty winter weather further mucked up operations. The worst of it was New Year's weekend. From Saturday through Monday, more than 12% of all scheduled flights within, from or to the U.S. were canceled.

U.S. airlines have now scrapped more than 20,000 flights just since Christmas Eve. Tens of thousands more have been significantly delayed. Kathleen Bangs says delays and cancellations this time of year are not unusual.

BANGS: But we usually don't see a period going this long with over a thousand cancellations a day and thousands and thousands of delays.

CHARLIE LEOCHA: Everything is as bad as it could be right now.

SCHAPER: Charlie Leocha heads the consumer group Travelers United.

LEOCHA: We've got the perfect storm with a new variant - which is omicron, which is now sweeping across America - and we've also got the weather. And then we've got the additional people who are all sweeping into the airline system to fly somewhere.

SCHAPER: This has played out before. Several airlines, including Spirit, American and Southwest, had operational meltdowns at times over the summer and fall when they were too short-staffed to handle the surge in air travel demand and didn't have enough reserve pilots and flight attendants when bad weather hit. But Leocha says the airlines were better prepared for the holiday travel surge.

LEOCHA: Some of them provided bonuses to people who stayed and worked overtime. Other ones just paid all of the workers more money over the holidays.

SCHAPER: Spirit, for example, offered flight attendants double pay to work certain holiday flights, while United is offering pilots triple pay to work extra unstaffed flights through January. But industry consultant Robert W. Mann, a former airline executive, sees a possible downside to such offers.

ROBERT W MANN: It's also a great incentive to show up under the weather - show up sick, work while you're sick - and that would be the moral hazard.

SCHAPER: Mann cites another reason for these continuing pandemic-related staffing issues.

MANN: We've had a recovery in flight volume and in passenger volume, but we haven't always had airlines planning, I would say, realistically for the number of employees who might not be available to work.

SCHAPER: Mann and others say air travelers should get a reprieve from the extensive flight delays and cancellations soon because January is typically a slow time for air travel, and airlines should be able to catch up.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "LOVE ABOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.