MIAMI – As the pandemic continues to cause mayhem in the travel industry, US airlines will temporarily raise wages for selected pilots. 

To fill empty cockpits, United Airlines (UA) opted to invest more money. The airline and its pilot union agreed to pay 3.5 times the usual pay to pilots who take up extra flights through Monday, and triple pay for trips from Tuesday to January 29.

According to Reuters, as per its union, Spirit Airlines (NK), flight attendants will be paid double for any services conducted until January 4th.

Air travelers were frustrated by canceled flights over the New Year’s holiday weekend. Many of the cancellations were attributed to staff shortages caused by a surge in COVID-19 infections, as well as wintry weather in regions of the United States. 

Per the tracking service FlightAware, airlines had canceled more than 1,550 US flights — about 6% of all booked flights — and nearly 3,500 globally by early Friday evening on the East Coast. This brought the overall number of cancellations in the US to more than 15,000 since Christmas Eve, surpassing the previous single-day high of 1,520 on December 26.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 N226WN. Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways

Staffing Woes

Airlines, led by Southwest (WN) and UA, scrapped 1,500 US flights on Saturday, including roughly 700 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where a winter storm was anticipated, and 700 more on Sunday.

Several federal air traffic controllers are being infected with the virus. The FAA reported that more of its staff had tested positive – it didn’t say how many – which might cause controllers to limit flight volumes and “may lead to delays during busy periods,” according to the agency.

While domestic leisure travel has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, overseas travel remains low, and the government is offering tourists more reasons to reconsider visits abroad. The State Department cautioned Americans on Thursday that if they test positive for coronavirus whilst traveling abroad, they may be subjected to an expensive quarantine until they test negative. 

Since March 2020, the federal government has provided US$54bn in aid to American Airlines (AA) in order to keep its personnel employed during the pandemic. The airlines were prohibited by Congress from furloughing employees, but they were authorized to give incentives to quit or take long leaves of absence, which many did.

US airlines employ around 9% fewer people than they did two years ago.

jetBlue N789JB Airbus A320-232. Photo: Kochan Kleps/Airways

Comments from Kurt Ebenhoch

Kurt Ebenhoch, a previous airline spokesman who subsequently became a travel consumer advocate, said airlines actively added flights, thinned their personnel, and underestimated the number of employees who would return to work following leaves of absence. “It was all done in the pursuit of profit,” he explained, “and their customers paid the price, big time.” 

Several airlines are scrambling to fill positions for pilots, flight attendants, and other employees. Meanwhile, other companies are reducing their schedules to the point that they can no longer operate. Southwest did it before the holidays, JetBlue (B6) is curtailing flights until mid-January, and Cathay Pacific (CX) in Hong Kong is stopping cargo flights and lowering passenger flights due to a pilot shortage.

According to estimates from Johns Hopkins University, the leftovers of the delta variant and the development of the new omicron variation propelled the seven-day rolling average of new daily COVID-19 cases in the US beyond 350,000, virtually tripling the rate of just a fortnight ago.

Featured image: United Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner N29961. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways