What does the American Airlines labor shortage mean for your holiday travel plans?

November 24, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

Over the past few weeks, American Airlines has quietly slashed its flight schedule for the second half of December by more than 20%, according to a major aviation analytics firm. The airline told Fortune that any cuts are part of regular tweaks “based on demand,” but a number that big would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The move might be an attempt to learn from Halloween weekend, when bad weather and short staffing forced American to cancel nearly 2,000 flights. Halloween was the latest in a string of several high-profile, system-wide breakdowns from major U.S. airlines since travel demand picked up again in early summer, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic emptied airports. 

American has made the most dramatic cuts among U.S. aviation companies, trimming 107,000 scheduled flights down to just 83,000 between Dec. 17 and Dec. 31, according to Cirium, the analytics firm. But other companies are also making moves to try and make up for a lack of available workers at the end of the year.   

Domestic holiday travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas is expected to be about 93 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2019, according to OAG, an aviation data analytics company. That’s welcome news to an industry that has lost billions of dollars over the past year and a half. But the surge of passengers also coincides with a significant industry-wide labor shortage. And analysts say it remains to be seen whether airlines will be able to handle the passenger resurgence—or fail and be forced to cancel thousands of flights at the last minute, leaving passengers stuck at airports around the country. 

Every major airline in the U.S. is currently struggling with severe labor shortages. But airline executives across the industry have continued to confidently say they have enough people and planes to handle the holidays. 

“No airline executive wants to ruin anyone’s holidays,” Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Atmosphere Research, told Fortune. “They know the stakes are high, and they’re taking steps to get in better shape for weather or whatever comes up.” 

Even so, the surge in demand has left airlines with little margin to manage flight schedule screw ups that can quickly cascade like dominoes through a carrier’s flight network—that’s why American Airlines cut their available flights. And in an attempt to keep everything running smoothly, airlines have made other bold moves to try and fill out and retain their workforce.

American plans to hire 4,000 workers during the fourth quarter of this year, including 600 flight attendants. And about 2,500 flight attendants who were on leave are returning to work in November and December, company spokesman Brian Metham told Fortune. Southwest, Delta and other airlines also are in the midst of hiring campaigns to handle rising travel demand. But it can take months to get new hires trained, proficient, and efficient, industry experts say. 

American Airlines is also hoping that offering holiday bonus pay will entice their employees to keep working during the travel surge. 

Most unions representing AA employees have accepted the incentives. However, the Allied Pilot Association rejected the bonuses as a short-term fix for structural problems.

“The problems are not going to be solved with a band-aid,” APA spokesman and American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer told Fortune. “It’s a cut artery.” 

Beyond potential interest in holiday bonuses, though, airline workers are just plain worn out after months of volatile work schedules, according to union representatives. And that could affect their willingness to even accept higher wages for working extra hours in December. 

“Flight Attendants and other frontline workers are exhausted,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants from 17 different airlines, told Fortune

Ticketing agents and flight attendants have had the added burden of dealing with particularly irate and disruptive travelers. “Unruly passenger” reports to the Federal Aviation Administration have skyrocketed from an average of a few hundred a year to more than 5,000 so far in 2021. 

All that stress on airline employees will only intensify during the industry’s most important time of the year. And with every airline seemingly susceptible to catastrophe, the stakes could not be higher. 

“This isn’t some random late August weekend,” said Conor Cunningham, an airline analyst at MKM Partners. “This is when they make most of their money.” 

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