What the Heck Is Going on Over at American Airlines?

A breakdown of an airline-industry breakdown

What the Heck Is Going on Over at American Airlines?
Ross Sokolovski/Unsplash

As you may already be aware, American Airlines canceled more than 400 flights on Monday, bringing the total number of cancellations since last Friday, according to Flight Aware, to well north of 2,000. On Sunday alone, nearly one of every five American flights was cancelled. There’s still a lot to unpack here, so in the event this is news to you, here’s what you need to know.

Per the airline, the wave of cancellations came as a result of bad weather and staffing shortages. But really, it’s just one operational breakdown out of a great many of its kind over the past few months. Last month, Southwest Airlines canceled upwards of 2,000 flights for similar reasons, and at a loss of $75 million. In August, Spirit stranded thousands of customers across the country as a result of mass cancellations and delays, resulting in airport chaos. In short: this wasn’t totally unexpected.

According to a new report from NBC, many airlines — American included — are still running on “skeletal” staffing as a result of employees having accepted buyouts or voluntary leaves of absence last spring. American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour has said that 1,800 flight attendants would be returning from said leave starting Monday, with the rest starting back in December. This comes following reports dating back to July that the airline was canceling extended leaves for roughly 3,300 flight attendants, asking them to be back in time for the holidays.

But like all other federal contractors, American Airlines is also now closing in on the federally mandated deadline to get the vaccine, which has only served to convolute things further. Last month, CNBC reported that both Southwest and American were relaxing their stance on vaccination, with CEO Doug Parker saying that he anticipates the majority of the airline’s workforce to be vaccinated and the remainder in possession of a religious or medical exemption by the deadline.

“And those who aren’t [vaccinated], we’ll continue to work with,” he confirmed at the time (albeit unclear in what capacity). Still, his proclamation wasn’t enough to deter unvaccinated employees from protesting outside of American’s headquarters only about a week after the fact. Throw in a few strong gusts of wind, as was the case at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport hub on Thursday night, and suddenly a staffing shortage turned dire.

“With additional weather throughout the system, our staffing begins to run tight as crew members end up out of their regular flight sequences,” Seymour wrote in a note to staff on Saturday.

It was a perfect storm of variables that resulted in thousands of cancellations for American this weekend, only a fraction of which were genuinely atmospheric. Unfortunately, it may also be a very good indicator of what’s to come as the holiday travel season approaches.

Per another new report from CNN, American Airlines pilot and Allied Pilots Association spokesman Capt. Dennis Tajer recently expressed concern on behalf of the union regarding how the airlines will manage the Thanksgiving and December travel surge. “We want that flying to get done, but we don’t want tickets sold that can’t be fulfilled,” he said. “Are they biting off more they can they chew?”

According to Tajer, somewhere in the vicinity of 3,700 pilots are still “in the process of either working on an exemption or attaining the vaccine, or taking on another choice.” The union is currently seeking an extension beyond the holidays or a testing requirement as an alternative so as not to disrupt the current flight schedule, though no extension has yet been approved.

The moral of the story is this: the holidays are coming. Cancellations are inevitable. Staffing shortages are very real. Travel insurance is imperative. And we who still have plans to fly over the course of the next two months need to keep the airline industry in our Ts and Ps, because 2,000 cancellations in a three-day span ain’t it.


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