Over the course of the pandemic, air travel has been significantly hampered, with customers facing tens of thousands of flight cancellations. As 2022 rolls in, experts worry that the most significant of the issues causing these widespread cancellations won't be over anytime soon. However, some problems that are keeping planes on the ground will hopefully begin to fade in January.
Over the holidays, winter weather in the Pacific Northwest, the usual increase in airport traffic, and the concurrent rising spread of the omicron variant lead to the cancelation of 7,800 U.S. flights before Christmas Eve had even arrived.
For reference, there are an estimated 70,000 global flights every day. While the pandemic initially cratered air travel demand, the number of daily travelers has now reached pre-pandemic levels.
After Christmas Eve, cancellations only got worse, peaking on New Year's Day. On the first day of 2022, a total of 7,359 flights originating or landing in the U.S. were canceled. Experts expect Sunday, Jan. 2, to be the busiest travel day, and nearly 4,000 flights had been canceled on Sunday as of 12 p.m., according to FlightAware.
If Jan. 2 turns out to be the peak travel day for the holiday season, then you'd think cancellations should decrease after that point. Unfortunately, even without busy holiday traffic, travelers are still going to be facing dropped flights. Winter weather is expected to continue to ground flights into the coming week, Omicron is continuing to spread, and airlines are still facing staffing issues, despite government assistance.
Over the course of the pandemic, Congress has given airlines over $54 billion in order to cover the majority of the industry's payroll costs. That aid came with some strings attached: airlines had to commit to either keep employees on or bring them back. This agreement failed to offer protection to the countless contract positions within the airline industry, like cabin cleaners, who airlines hire via labor vendors.
"The result is a disconnected system of work with no standard wages, and it's a situation the airlines have created to keep costs down and profits up," Laura Moran, a spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union, told Vox. "It's unreasonable that low-wage Black and brown workers on the front lines are expected to bear the brunt of these problems when airlines are trying to reach profitability."
According to a House of Representatives investigation, airlines went on to cut 15% of their workforce after receiving coronavirus-related government aid. Airlines continue to look for ways to stay profitable, including an idea proposed to employees by United Airlines
Many business owners and Republican lawmakers have blamed labor shortages and high unemployment benefits for the lack of new applicants. However, the claim that workers are choosing unemployment over new jobs has been widely debunked, and labor experts say that any labor shortage we're experiencing isn't across the board.
Instead, according to the Washington Post's Heather Long, American workers who lost jobs or quit during the pandemic are simply considering their options and the potential of a different career, meaning that industries known for poor working conditions probably won't recover as quickly.
Airlines are considered "capital-intensive", and according to Slate's Henry Grabar, this is why they needed so much aid and continued to struggle financially.
"Capital-intensive means it's hard to tighten your belt," Grabar wrote for Slate. "You can save some money on fuel and food, but not on labor or rent... There is no factory to shut down. Even if you ground flights, many costs are fixed."
Running an airline might be inherently expensive, but critics have pointed to airlines' continued practice of stock buybacks and massive executive compensation packages as the true cause for the airlines' light wallets.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave labor groups one more reason to worry at the end of 2021 when it shortened its recommended isolation period from ten days to five. The change was made in order to protect the economy from the effect of a large number of employees taking off work due to being infected.