As travel surges, here’s why the airlines have been caught flat-footed

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For the first time this holiday travel season, the number of passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Dec. 22 exceeded the number of passengers who traveled on that date two years ago

Unfortunately, the airlines are unable to handle this surge in passengers.

In the early days of the pandemic, airlines scrambled to get senior employees to take early retirement as a way to immediately reduce their payroll expenses. The two-part plan was to trim the excess of the most expensive employees and later replace them with new hires at a greatly reduced cost once the demand for travel returned.

The first part of the plan worked better than expected, with nearly 60,000 employees leaving the airline industry. That provided needed relief to airlines that were, at the time, battling a 96 percent drop in traffic.

The cost reductions were not enough. The industry lobbied Washington for assistance, resulting in three rounds of bailout money coming their way totaling more than $54 billion.

The second part of the plan, where new hires would help fill the ranks when demand for travel returned, never materialized. For the first time in the history of commercial aviation, the interest in working for airlines was not there. Airlines were experiencing the same hiring problems that were hobbling so many companies across the country.

With a reduced number of employees, the airlines limped into the holiday travel season. As the number of passengers increased, so did the operational challenges. As the omicron variant spread, it impacted many airline employees, who were then subjected to a 10-day period of quarantine. At present, airlines are pushing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the quarantine period to be reduced to five days, citing the fact their employees are vaccinated and are desperately needed to keep the holiday travel season flowing.

The negative impact became clear on Christmas Eve as United and Delta Airlines were forced to cancel hundreds of flights because of their employee shortage. The absence of many available seats on later flights will make the task of accommodating the more than 50,000 affected passengers even more of a challenge. It is also quite possible that as the last week of holiday travel proceeds, we will see a growing number of flight delays and cancellations, adding to passenger headaches.

Normally this kind of disruption can be attributed to weather or a computer issue, both of which can arise at any moment. If we see any computer problems or bad weather over the next 10 days, the airline network could see thousands of cancelled flights and tens of thousands of stranded travelers.

For those who are flying and encounter a problem with a flight, use the social media tools at your disposal to contact the airlines. Many times, something as simple as a Facebook private message to an airline can provide quick travel options for your consideration.

The key for effective social media interaction with an airline is to first provide your six-digit confirmation number and then briefly describe the problem at hand. This is not the time to document complaints about your last six flights. Keep it short and make it easy to read.

Consider using Flight Aware as a quick reference during your travels. This free site allows us to track our flight as well as the incoming aircraft that makes up our departure, allowing us to review the very latest information.

Once we pass Jan. 3, 2022, airlines will have a chance to regroup, as the month of January is historically a slower travel month. The traffic patterns tend to pick up as we near March, so hopefully airlines will have ample time to prepare for the next rush of passengers, because we can clearly see they were not prepared this time.

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.

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