Where Is My Luggage? by Rich Paschall
After two years of pandemic restrictions, this was the summer the travel industry was to return to normal. Long postponed vacations would finally happen. Family events that were put on hold could now be held. Business travelers could return to the skies to see clients and attend conventions. We could travel to escape, explore, learn and relax. Items on the bucket list could finally be accomplished before it is too late. Travelers were ready to go. Airlines and airports claimed to be ready Disappointment followed for many. What happened?
It would be easy to blame the airlines for this mess. Didn’t they promise a return to normal? Didn’t they invite us back? Didn’t they tell us they were ready for us? They sure did! Did their reach exceed their grasp?
When the pandemic started, workers were put on furlough by tens of thousands across the industry and around the world. Some thought it may be for a couple of months. When I was sent home to do my airline job from home, in mid-March 2020, we thought we would surely be back in the office by the end of May. Workers on unpaid leave would certainly be rejoining us soon. But the pandemic lingered and the lay-offs continued. Early retirement was offered to some. Airlines with a worldwide presence, and losing money daily, could not maintain their large staffs and facilities. We are still working from home.
Airplanes were parked in the desert. Facilities were closed. For some, assets were sold. Qualified staff either retired or found other work. Did everyone really think they could return to pre-pandemic levels quickly when they had pulled back so radically?
Some pilots retired. Some had not flown their aircraft in so long, that they had to be recertified. In fact, some airplanes were out of service for so long, that they had to be recertified. With many pilots now retired or moved on to other pursuits, where were the replacement pilots going to come from? What about the flight attendants, baggage handlers, gate agents, and all of the support staff? If all of your former staff were not flocking back, how long was it going to take you to get a qualified workforce in place? Obviously, a lot longer than some airlines had thought.
When airlines found they could not turn the faucet and have everything flowing again, they were forced to adjust their schedules on the fly, so to speak. What had been promised in the spring could not be delivered in the summer.
As the pandemic dragged on, American Airlines, for example, furloughed 17000 workers, 1600 were pilots. While they grasped at an ambitious schedule, they could not reach it. AA cut 1175 flights in July and August. Looking ahead, 31,000 flights were axed from the November schedule. American now thinks it could take a year to get back on track.
“I think it’s dependent on the supply chains of aircraft manufacturers and ultimately, pilot supply to get all back in sync.” – Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines
United Airlines has also pulled back, canceling flights around the system as they learned they could not meet the demand. Attempting to bring things back to almost pre-pandemic levels was too ambitious.
“We’re not going to get back to normal utilization and normal staffing levels until next summer.” – Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines
If you are thinking of going over the river by air and through the woods to grandma’s house for Christmas, you need to start thinking about it NOW. “Unfortunately, there still are going to be fewer seats available around the whole system,” Kirby said. “You should probably book early for Christmas.”
As if the airlines’ woes were not enough, airports were also facing staffing problems. You may have heard about the travelers who bought tickets on American Airlines to go to the British Open Golf tournament. The flights were actually operated from Texas to Edinburgh by British Airways. As they were flying to London for their connecting flight, they received an email, which they obviously could not read, canceling the connection. London Heathrow Airport asked airlines to cancel 61 flights from terminals 3 and 5. They could not handle it. British Airways connections were from Terminal 5. Unable to retrieve their luggage, some passengers went on by train without it.
Passengers have been unexpectedly stranded around the world this summer by cancellations that arose on short notice. Whether it was caused by airlines attempting to do too much, or by airports, security, or customs unable to handle the sudden surge of passengers, vacation for many has turned into a travel nightmare like that seen in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987, Steve Martin comedy), except this nightmare isn’t funny.
You probably have heard of the other problem that continues to plague the travel industry: COVID-19. Let’s say a baggage handler or cargo handler tests positive for the disease. This means that contact tracing begins and anyone who had been working alongside that person must get tested. They can not return to work until they get a negative test. This can cause significant behind-the-scenes problems. Fewer workers to load and unload an aircraft mean delays and as often as not, cancellations.
Illness and contact tracing can — and has — virtually shut down small airports for days at a time. Not enough people to handle flights. There are many more people involved in travel than the people you see on the plane or at the gate. The travel industry is complicated and much of it is invisible to travelers.
There’s an army of people behind the scenes. If a large segment of that army goes missing, travel chaos follows.
Sources include: “American Airlines CEO: It Could Take 3 Years To Reach Full Capacity,” by Jamie Moore, Simple FLying, simpleflying.com July 24, 2022.
“American Airlines Cuts 1,175 Flights in July and August to Ease Disruptions,” By Mary Schlangenstein Bloomberg, bloomberg.com July 22, 2022.
“United Airlines CEO Just Revealed When Flying Will Be Back to Normal,” by Abby Reinhard, Yahoo! Life, yahoo.com July 23,2022.
“British Airways passengers were sent an email mid-air saying that the second leg of their flight had been canceled,” by Grace Dean, Bussiness Insider, businessinsider.com July 14, 2022