And how was YOUR holiday weekend? If you were flying, well, chances are higher than usual that you had to deal with some ugliness. Another holiday, another meltdown. Was it a pilot shortage? Spiking sick calls? General COVID issues? Yes, yes, and yes.
This isn’t your typical pilot shortage, and it’s not a labor action with increased sick calls. We’ve seen all that before, but this, well, this is something new. You know how the Omicron variant is more transmissible? Well, it seems that some airlines don’t have enough buffer to weather to growing storm of infections as they race through front line employees.
I took a look at cancellations on the 23rd through mid-day on the 25th in masFlight. Is this a complete picture? No, but that doesn’t matter. You can see how this is beginning to unfold, and it is probably only going to get worse.
Holiday Weekend Completion Factor by Marketing Carrier
I suppose I should start by giving a shout out to American. Somehow, it has avoided having a shortage, and it is running a stellar operation… for now. I expect no airline will be left untouched in the next month.
But at the other end, we have the four problem children who canceled at least 5 percent of flights. It had been more like 10 percent of mainline for United and Delta, and that is not good. Allegiant and JetBlue aren’t usually beacons of operational success anyway, but they are doing extra poorly here. That is particularly awful for Allegiant passengers since there are often very few if any options in those thin markets when a flight cancels.
Of all the airlines hit hard, however, it’s United that gets the biggest black eye. And why is that? United was happily crowing about how great its operation was, and how having a vaccine requirement would provide more operational reliability. In the long run, this is likely true, but Omicron seems happy infecting just about everyone these days, and it is indeed United’s turn for a meltdown of sorts.
(Side note: To avoid some crazy anti-vax rants, I’ll point out that the vaccinated will mostly encounter mild symptoms, and it won’t feel like much more than a cold or flu. The vaccine works, but government rules around isolation prevent crews from working even with mild illness. But I digress….)
United has, at least, been very proactive in notifying about the cancellations, and it has been very clear in explaining the reasons, but that’s no consolation for someone stuck in an airport. That being said, there is a little silver lining here. A look at the cancellations by fleet type shows that United is really struggling primarily in the 737 fleet.
United Cancellations by Fleet Type
That’s good in that it’s more isolated, but it also means United can try to replace some 737 flights with fewer flights on bigger airplanes. All hope is not lost, but it is still a tough go for travelers.
Meanwhile, Delta is following a time-honored tradition by melting down on a holiday. It’s really not a real holiday unless Delta melts down, right? Here’s that airline’s fleet breakdown.
Delta Cancellations by Fleet Type
This is a tougher breakdown, because it does not seem isolated by fleet in the same way. I’m sure Delta can still try to move things around and upgauge where able, but this isn’t going to be as easy for the airline.
The bad news is that this isn’t likely going to go away anytime soon. Omicron is racing through the population, and if trends in South Africa are any indication, it will be a swift spike followed by a decline soon enough. But there are complicating factors, most notably that the CDC still says isolation is needed for 10 days from the onset of symptoms or positive test. That really hamstrings an airline’s operation.
We should have known Delta would be melting down last week, because it was the first airline to publicly lobby the CDC to change its rules from 10 days down to 5, which would alleviate the burden when an employee tests positive. JetBlue and the lobbying group A4A followed, but AFA, the flight attendant union, is pushing back. Either way, the glacial pace at which government moves probably means that a change won’t happen soon enough to avoid the pain that’s coming.
Though I have no way of knowing for sure, my guess is that January is going to be tough, punctuated by various shortages depending upon which workgroups in what locations are most impacted at any given time. But I would think that by the end of January, things should be in a better place… just in time for the next big travel period in mid-February when early spring break begins. And then on March 14, watch out for the next variant Pi to show up. That’s the next letter in the Greek alphabet.
So, once again, hold on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. With any luck, however, this particular piece will be a short, turbulent trip.