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Flying for Thanksgiving? Expect packed planes, unruly passengers and cancellations

Unclaimed baggage wells up between carousels for passengers arriving on Southwest Airlines flights at Denver International Airport late Sunday, Oct. 10, in Denver.
Unclaimed baggage wells up between carousels for passengers arriving on Southwest Airlines flights at Denver International Airport late Sunday, Oct. 10, in Denver.

A year ago, many of us stayed home or went to small gatherings for turkey, stuffing and Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish, but this year, the wide availability of coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. is making more people feel comfortable flying longer distances for Thanksgiving.

If you're among them, brace yourself for long lines in crowded airports and jam packed flights, because the early pandemic days of half-empty planes are long gone.

"We're seeing a lot of people very much, you know, looking to travel and fly for Thanksgiving this year and make up for maybe staying at home last year," says Vivek Pandya, lead analyst for Adobe Digital Insights, which tracks airline booking data.

As of Nov. 7, bookings for Thanksgiving week flights are up 78% over last year, and they're even slightly ahead of 2019, up 3.2% from pre-pandemic levels.

"There's excitement around potentially, you know, being with family and friends for Thanksgiving again. So that's, you know, pushing up bookings, you know, pretty sizably there," Pandya says.

But Pandya says as bookings rise, so do prices.

"We are seeing flight ticket prices increase because we're seeing this high demand for Thanksgiving," Pandya says, as air fares are up significantly from last year's pandemic bargains.

Higher fuel prices are contributing to higher fares, too, with the price of crude oil rising 66% this year.

Passengers line up outside the Spirit Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Aug. 3. Spirit Airlines canceled more than half its schedule Tuesday, and American Airlines struggled to recover from weekend storms at its Texas home, stranding thousands of passengers at the height of the summer travel season.
Eugene Garcia / AP
Passengers line up outside the Spirit Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Aug. 3. Spirit Airlines canceled more than half its schedule Tuesday, and American Airlines struggled to recover from weekend storms at its Texas home, stranding thousands of passengers at the height of the summer travel season.

Airlines have had operational meltdowns that forced delays and cancellation of thousands of flights

In recent months, some airlines have had trouble handling the rapid recovery in air travel demand. Southwest, Spirit and American have all had operational meltdowns that forced them to delay and cancel thousands of flights.

Some of those delays and cancellations were initially caused by bad weather, but the airlines' staffing levels were stretched too thin and "problems snowballed" as they had too few pilots and flight attendants available to catch up and recover, says Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot who is now with the flight tracking firm FlightAware. And she notes that now, winter is coming.

"And so what's going to be interesting is to see what are the airlines going to do to handle not only this huge influx of capacity of passengers that are going to be wanting to travel starting out with the Thanksgiving season, but what's going to happen when we have a major weather system impact? Are we going to see another meltdown?"

Bangs says airlines cannot overpromise by adding too many flights to meet the increased holiday travel demand, they and then underdeliver by having too few pilots, flight attendants and other employees to run their operations smoothly when the inevitable bad winter weather hits.

"Because it's one thing to have a meltdown at the end of October," Bangs says. "But it's another thing completely if you ruin somebody's Thanksgiving or Christmas or make them miss it altogether. That is on a whole other level."

American Airlines, which had the most recent operational meltdown last month, says on Nov. 1, it has brought back 1,800 flight attendants who had been on leave, and another 600 new hires come on board Dec. 1.

In addition, the airline and its flight attendants union negotiated for bonus pay of 150% their normal rate to flight attendants who work at critical times over the holiday season, and up to triple pay, 300%, to flight attendants who don't call in sick at all over certain critical periods in November, December and into January.

But American's pilots union rejected the airline's offer of a similar boost in pay to work holiday season flights, saying pilots would rather focus on "meaningful permanent improvements in a new collective bargaining agreement."

An American Airlines plane grounded at O'Hare International Airport. Chicago in April.
David Schaper / NPR
An American Airlines plane grounded at O'Hare International Airport. Chicago in April.

Flight attendants are mentally and physically exhausted and continue to face abuse from passengers

American Airlines flight attendant Paul Hartshorn, Jr., spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, says the bump in pay is well deserved.

"It's been a really difficult almost two years now for our flight attendants, it's just been one hit after another and they are mentally and physically exhausted at times," he told NPR, noting that he and his colleagues continue to face a high number of incidents of verbal and physical abuse on flights.

"We've had flight attendants shoved, punched, pushed to the floor and hit their head on the armrest on the way down. Really, really serious injuries that we're dealing with here."

On one recent flight, he says a passenger repeatedly punched a flight attendant in the face, breaking her nose and other facial bones. That passenger was arrested and charged by federal authorities as the FAA is now increasingly referring these cases to the FBI and Department of Justice for prosecution.

The FAA has now received more than 5,100 reports of unruly passenger incidents since January, and agency data show that almost three in four incidents involve passengers refusing to wear masks.

On Wednesday, the FAA announced it was proposing fines ranging from $9,000 to $32,000 on 10 passengers for incidents of unruly behavior on flights, including assault.

"Look, the masks are here for the holiday season," Hartshorn says. "It's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to socially distance onboard an aircraft. And we have a lot of passengers that don't have access to the vaccine, we have children who are just now gaining access to the vaccine."

There could be a possible shortage of TSA officers to work at security checkpoints

Another potential problem for Thanksgiving air travelers is long lines at airport security checkpoints, as there could be a possible shortage of TSA officers to work those checkpoints.

Like all federal government employees, TSA workers face a Nov. 22 deadline for being fully vaccinated. As of last month, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said about 40% of the agency's 65,000 employees had not yet reported their vaccination status.

Officials say they expect the actual number of unvaccinated officers will be low, adding that those who do not comply with the mandate will be be able to work, while going through a process of vaccine education and counseling, so they don't expect having any staffing shortages over the holiday season.

"We're keeping an eye on this. Our goal is always to protect passengers, get them to their destination safely, and we'll know more when we get closer to the deadline," says Chicago-based TSA spokesperson Jessica Mayle. "Right now, we're just focused on encouraging all employees to get vaccinated and collecting that information from them as they do it."

Mayle also says the TSA says it is staffing up in preparation for the holidays to try to minimize long lines at security checkpoints.

"We've been hiring all year, we've hired more than 6,000 officers across the country this year," she says.

"We have local teams on the ground (at airports) across the country ... They definitely know the times of day, the flight patterns, the passenger patterns that they see and they keep their staffing level appropriate so that you don't see wait lines beyond what we can (normally) expect."

But with many people possibly flying for the first time in a long time, Mayle advises travelers to plan ahead and not bring any prohibited items in carry-on bags, and she advises travelers to arrive at the airport two hours before their flight's departure time.

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