Just a few weeks ago it seemed as if there was a recovery underway for the airline industry. Airports sprung to life during the July 4th weekend and summer travel seemed destined for a full recovery as people were anxious to leave what had been a forced confinement to their homes and communities. But Covid-19 wasn’t kind to the airline industry. Complaints against airlines surged by an astounding 5,500% last year with 83% of those complaints relating to refunds for unused travel.
Ironically, the airlines used the refund policy as a way to show how “user-friendly” they were and were hoping that it would entice travelers to come back to “friendlier” skies, but that issue came back to bite them big time.
The passengers the airlines welcomed back were also not the same as the pre-Covid flying public. Passengers seemed to be on edge and for the first time the airlines faced dealing an unusual number of unruly passengers to the point where one had to be restrained in his seat. The FAA said that they’ve received 1,300 airline complaints regarding unruly and disruptive passengers in 2021. It has proposed a series of fines against unruly passengers mentioned in complaints from airlines themselves.
Passengers, on the other hand, say that it is the airline crews that are uncharacteristically on edge these days enforcing so-called rules at will. Many in our community, like the 18 girls that were kicked off international flights twice, say that they experienced outright hostility if not prejudice against them. Some families complained that they were singled out for violating mask rules even when eating their brought onboard kosher food. U.S. airlines have issued their own bans against 3,000 passengers who refused to follow their mask guidelines.
By far the biggest complaint of passengers is their inability to get a refund for a Covid related cancellation. Said one FAA official: “I have never seen a single issue generate so much consumer anger. It’s off the charts and this has been going on now for 14 months.” The airlines simply shrug to say that it is in process.
Many flights throughout the country have been cancelled due to staffing problems. To complicate matters is the weather this summer with its abundance of thunderstorms. At the end of July both American Airlines and Spirit Airlines cancelled hundreds of flights. More than 370 flights — or 12% of American’s mainline schedule — had been canceled. More than 120 of those cancellations were due to a lack of crews, while 40 were triggered by bad weather, according to an internal list, which was reviewed by CNBC.
Close to 3,000 American flights were canceled or delayed between on Sunday and Monday in early August when thunderstorms struck its Dallas/Fort Worth International Hub.
The weather is the best understood airline problem. It is customary for airlines to cancel flights ahead of hurricanes and blizzards so as not to strand passengers and crews at airports. One travel expert said that adding to the weather problems is that airlines are struggling to staff up to handle a surge in travel demand. In normal times, airlines can roughly plan for the right number of staff. Ironically, when the pandemic struck the airlines, like other large companies, urged their employees to take buyouts or leaves of absence to cut labor costs last year. One airline allowed some crew members to work from home, answering inquiries from consumers, and was simply not able to arrange for these workers to return to airports and airplanes.
It seems that even the airlines could not predict the sudden surge of interest in travel. On August 1st, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 2.24 million people, the most since Feb. 28, 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
“Passengers understand that airlines don’t control the weather, but the mark of a good airline is how it treats passengers when the chips are down,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel-industry consulting firm Atmosphere Research Group and a former airline executive. For the frum community, accommodations in the air are extremely important. Yitzchok G, a frequent flyer said that one airline had publicly derided him when he got up to daven Shmonei Esreh even though the seatbelt sign was off.
“I usually tell a crew member that I will be getting up to pray when weather conditions permit,” says Yitzchok, “and in most cases it is a non-event.” But on at least two recent flights, he was publicly admonished for standing in his seat or in a vestibule aboard the aircraft.
These accommodations are becoming more important as an increasing number of Orthodox Jews fly regularly. It is of little comfort to them to hear those other passengers are also complaining about how they are being treated on the ground and in the air. Dina, for example, recently waited 6.5 hours to speak to an airline executive by phone.
Interestingly, the airlines consider the passenger behavior their biggest problem. “We are all more traumatized than we realize, and that puts people on edge,” said Raymond Tafrate, a psychologist and criminology professor at Central Connecticut State University who has studied anger. Many airlines have hired psychology experts to train crews how to handle unruly passengers. In the regulations that the FAA is considering, it may very well include a ban on alcohol consumption even though it is a profit center for many airlines.
The big question is how the resurgence of Covid, namely the variant, will affect air travel going forward. Many people who had booked flights just a few weeks ago were now canceling flights. For the airlines, just when they thought that air travel was back on track there may be a huge setback and instead of a resurgence of air travel there may in fact be a decline.
The airlines are concerned that they may soon be asked to enforce a new mandate that will require proof of vaccination. Internationally, many countries that had just opened their borders may soon issue restrictions as to who may enter. Israel sems to be heading in the direction of tightening entry restrictions, just in time for the Yomim Tovim.
For those who thought that the Covid-19 era was over, there is good reason to think again, especially in the air.