American Airlines has something to prove during the Thanksgiving travel season.
American suffered a schedule meltdown during the last weekend of October, cancelling 1,600 flights after the impact of high winds in Dallas-Fort Worth cascaded due to the carrier’s tight crew scheduling.
Now come the heaviest travel days since the pandemic began, and American must show that it learned from its October problems as well as from summer incidents that included hundreds of cancellations over Father’s Day weekend, and a slow recovery from bad Dallas weather in early August, which led to about 3,500 cancellations.
“People are wanting to travel, wanting to go see family over the holidays,” American CEO Doug Parker said Wednesday, speaking at the Skift aviation forum. “We’re ready for it.”
To prepare for the holidays, the carrier negotiated deals with most of its unions to offer overtime and bonus pay for holiday work. “They recognized we had an issue; they knew we needed to do something, and as flight attendants we want to make sure our passengers are not put in this position,” Julie Hedrick, president of Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said recently. APFA represents 24,000 American flight attendants.
Pilots, however, chose not to accept the incentives, saying American should work out its schedule vulnerabilities in ongoing contract talks.
Other carriers, including Southwest and Spirit, have also suffered similar summer breakdowns in which weather events strained operational systems forced during the pandemic to downsize, then pressed to grow suddenly due to high passenger demand.
In response, Southwest said it will cut back on its summer 2022 schedule if it does not have adequate staffing, while Spirit said it cut back on its current quarter schedule and has sought to boost staffing, particularly airport staffing.
Heavy Thanksgiving travel will challenge every airline, of course. If disruptions occur, they will most likely result from bad weather. For now, it’s a little too soon to forecast.
“Everything depends on mother nature,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s 14,000 pilots. “The history of American through the summer and fall has been that when mother nature generates a storm, management keeps the storm rolling for days afterwards.
“Recent history shows that when the skies are clear, American brags about how well it’s done. But that’s not something to brag about,” Tajer said. “The sign of a great airline is how well you recover after mother nature visits.”
The Transportation Security Administration said Thanksgiving travel will be close to pre-pandemic levels. The agency expects to screen about 20 million passengers between Friday and Sunday, Nov. 28. (The biggest day in TSA history was the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2019, when nearly 2.9 million people were screened.)
DFW International Airport, American’s largest hub expects 2.3 million passengers between Thursday and Nov. 29. That’s 95% as many passengers as it saw during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.
At Charlotte Douglas International, American’s second largest hub, airport officials expect that on Sunday, Nov. 28, its busiest day so far this year, about 35,000 local passengers will clear TSA checkpoints, about 92% of the 2019 level. About 30,000 local passengers are expected on several other days this week, up from about 20,000 on a typical day.
Throughout the week, the airport will be “a very busy place,” Jack Christine, CLT chief operating officer, told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re not too very far off from where we were prior to Covid.”
Besides local passengers, about 50,000 American Airlines passengers will connect on each of the busy travel days during Thanksgiving week. Typically, about 80% of the passengers at CLT are connecting on American flights. This year, Charlotte traffic has been around 84% of pre-pandemic levels.
American’s Parker said Wednesday that in the October incident, strong winds shut down half of DFW and the airline had lower crew reserve levels at the end of the month.
Parker said American is hiring more pilots and more flight attendants. He said that on Tuesday, he attended graduation at American’s flight attendant academy.
“It was a big day for the 95 graduates and a big day for me, too,” Parker wrote in a post for his various social media accounts. “This is our first graduating flight attendant class since March 2020. In fact, each of these new flight attendants was in training in March 2020, but because of the pandemic, we had to send them home.
“As we fought through the last 600 days, part of my personal inspiration was that, since 2013, I had told each graduating class of flight attendants I’d spoken to that they were joining a company they could work for as long as they liked,” Parker said. “The pandemic brought that statement into question.”
At the Skift forum, Parker mused briefly on his history at America West Airlines and US Airways. The two carriers merged in 2006, then merged with American in 2013.
“America West was a great airline but it was too small to exist in a consolidating world,” Parker said. “Then US Airways was compromised. We needed to do something about that.
“I told the flight attendants yesterday, ‘You’re joining an airline that’s going to be here as long as you want to be here. We couldn’t say that at those other airlines.”