Over a week ago, I wrote about the cancellations at United, Delta, JetBlue, and Allegiant that were quickly mounting. Now, more than a week later, we’re still talking about it. This time, every airline is being impacted as a perfect storm causes headaches throughout the industry.
To be clear, I’m not talking about an actual weather event as being “the perfect storm.” Yes, weather is a part of it. It started with the Seattle snowstorm that crushed Alaska and hurt Delta last week. Then weather rolled through Chicago and the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Weather is not helping, but as has often been the case this year, it’s a catalyst but not the primary issue.
When I wrote about cancellations last week, weather wasn’t even a factor. No, instead, the issue was more about crew shortages due to already thin benches during the pandemic as well as Omicron illness causing major sick call increases. When you throw weather on top, it’s like dropping a Mentos into a bottle of Coke that you already shook up vigorously. It does not end well.
The problem from the outside is trying to understand exactly what is going on here. It’s not really very easy to figure out, because every piece of data shows something different. And the data that would really help isn’t readily available, like number of sick pilots by base as compared to normal.
It has been suggested that airlines overscheduled themselves this holiday season, but I don’t really see that. Let’s start with the number of departures by day for the Big Four.
Scheduled Daily Departures by Airline – Big Four US Carriers
Then using a different scale to make it legible, here’s the rest of the airlines of interest.
Scheduled Daily Departures by Airline – Smaller US Carriers
What can we take from this? Well, in the top chart you see that Southwest was the only airline to really surge its schedule during the holidays, and it didn’t have operational issues until the very end. Meanwhile, look how much Delta cut back between Christmas and New Year’s, yet it was one of the airlines hit hardest.
In the lower chart, we see that JetBlue surged the most which tracks with the airline’s poor operational performance. But Spirit also had a big surge, and it didn’t have operational issues until much later. So the schedule alone doesn’t really help us here.
If I turn to masFlight, we can see how things have actually been operating.
Completion Factor by Airline 2021/2022 Holiday Season
What a terrible, terrible chart. At the beginning of the month, the airlines were where they were supposed to be. You can see on the 23rd how United, Delta, JetBlue, and Allegiant start to fall off. Then on December 26 the Seattle snowstorm hits and takes Alaska down to under 65 percent completion. That’s also when Spirit takes a hit. At the end of the year, American, Frontier, and Southwest finally join the rest of the party when the Chicago and Northeast weather hits.
Things really bottomed out on Jan 3 when not one of these airlines completed more than 90 percent of flights. (I should note that both Hawaiian and Sun Country did, but they don’t count in the same way due to geography for Hawaiian and small size of Sun Country. Still, good on them.)
The 4th saw a nice rebound, as you’d expect to see after a storm. The 4th should also have been better, because for many airlines that was the start of the post-holiday schedule where at least some airlines have more slack built in. But now the next storyline will start to unfold.
Look at Southwest lagging there and starting to separate from the pack, and not in a good way. The FlightAware dashboard around mid-day yesterday (the 5th) shows Southwest had canceled 16 percent of flights. That’s even worse than on the 4th. Alaska was also at 16 percent. I asked Alaska for a statement on when things would get back to normal, but it sounds like the airline doesn’t really know. The statement began like this:
Like many other airlines, this latest surge of COVID is driving higher-than-usual absences among all our workgroups, consistent with nationwide COVID trends. This is compounded by the residual impacts of winter weather in several of our key hubs.
For Jan. 5, we have canceled 112 flights across our network and guests have been notified by email. We sincerely apologize for the considerable inconvenience and understandable frustration that our guests have experienced this past week.
This isn’t a knock against Alaska. After all, how could you know how many people will call in sick tomorrow or the day after? It’s just impossible in the current environment.
The good news here is that the way Omicron is racing through the population, it has to burn itself out fairly quickly. (This, for the record, is only good news if you’re vaccinated which means symptoms are likely mild and hospitalization is rare. If you’re not, you might find yourself in an overworked and understaffed hospital, so… good luck to you.) I expect January will continue to be very ugly for the airline industry, even with the isolation period reduced to 5 days for those who get sick.
At some point soon, we are going to have to start treating COVID like the endemic disease it is becoming. If someone is vaccinated, should they really have to isolate if they get sick and are asymptomatic? Or what if they just have the sniffles? Just imagine if people were forced to stay home for 5 days if they had a minor cold. Until we start treating COVID in a similar way, I imagine these types of disruptions will become the norm any time a highly transmissible variant makes it way through the population.
Then we can go back to the normal disruptions from pilot shortages (which I didn’t even bother bringing up in here despite notable impacts at many regionals), operational mismanagement, and all the other fun stuff that plagues the industry on a regular basis.