WASHINGTON - U.S. airlines are about to confront their biggest test since the beginning of the pandemic.
Twenty months into the health crisis, travelers are eager for in-person celebrations far from home with family and friends. The number of people expected to fly this Thanksgiving holiday season will approach pre-pandemic levels, airline officials say. But their journeys are in the hands of an industry still struggling to recover from the depths of the pandemic, when thousands of workers were sidelined as nearly empty planes crisscrossed the country.
Traveling during the holidays has always been challenging - given the sheer volume of passengers and unpredictability of weather - but the pandemic has thrown in an added layer of uncertainty. Despite receiving billions of dollars from government rescue packages to ensure airlines were ready when demand returned, carriers are struggling to rebuild their operations.
Weeks after buckling under pressure, the holiday travel season that begins this month will gauge whether the nation's air carriers, airports and security personnel can withstand the highest passenger volumes of the pandemic era.
"While we've had full flights and a lot more people at the airport since the beginning of the spring, we've never had a period when we've had such a large volume of travelers in such a compressed time frame," said aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt. "It puts everybody under an additional level of stress and strain."
The Transportation Security Administration said it expects to screen 20 million people during the Thanksgiving week based on reservations data it receives from airlines, which would be about 85% of the passenger count in 2019. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is projected to have 2.4 million air travelers, which would make it the busiest day at U.S. airports this year.
The increase comes alongside a federal mask mandate that has fueled a disturbing uptick in violent altercations, which airline workers say has left them exhausted and fearful. Earlier this month, a Southwest Airlines employee was hospitalized after a passenger struck her in the head during a dispute. In October, an American Airlines flight attendant was hospitalized after a passenger punched her in the face.
However, concerns by some industry observers that a federal vaccine mandate could sideline thousands of airline workers during the holiday travel season were alleviated when a federal appeals court halted the Biden administration's vaccine or testing requirement for private businesses. Before that, the administration had pushed a December deadline for compliance to January, giving the industry time to get through the holidays.
Travelers said they are hoping for the best.
Michael Fanning, 63, and his wife were careful to book direct flights from Charlotte to Boulder, Colo., where they will spend the holidays with family, including a 2-year-old grandson. They chose American Airlines, aware of a late October meltdown that prompted the cancellation of more than 2,000 flights amid weather and staffing problems.
"We're crossing our fingers it will all work out well," Fanning said.
Along with American, Southwest and Spirit Airlines are among carriers that have stumbled this year, canceling thousands of flights and leaving customers stranded at airports across the country this summer and fall, in part, because of staffing shortages. The airlines say they have taken steps - such as bringing more workers back and trimming flight schedules - to ensure a smooth holiday season.
"We've made great strides to reach our goal of hiring 5,000 new employees during the fall and winter, and previously reduced flight schedules in November and December to support our front-line employees throughout our network," Southwest spokesman Dan Landson wrote in an email.
It's not just airlines feeling the strain.
While the TSA avoided high-profile mishaps as the number of daily air passengers surpassed 1 million, then 2 million this spring and summer, it has struggled with staffing. Earlier this year, the agency launched an aggressive campaign to hire 6,000 new officers, offering signing bonuses and other incentives.
TSA leadership, however, said the agency is ready to handle the onslaught of travelers.
"We're confident that we have the staffing that we'll need to be able to manage the passenger volumes that we project," TSA administrator David Pekoske said.
The head of the union that represents TSA officers cautioned that the agency has been slow to move workers to the front lines. Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said during the House subcommittee meeting that long wait times should be expected over the holidays at the nation's airports.
"They're just going to be there because of the fact there's such a high turnover and the fact that we've not done an exceptional job in making sure that the workforce was replenished," Kelley said. "We still have people in training that should be on the floor performing the job right now."
The airline industry received $54 billion in grants as part of three federal coronavirus aid packages, singled out early in the pandemic when passenger counts fell more than 90% and the industry appeared on the verge of collapse. The money was provided to ensure carriers could recover - on the condition that they not furlough employees.
Still, airlines persuaded employees to take lengthy voluntary leaves or early retirements. Experts say that left carriers stretched thin as they headed into the summer while trying to capitalize on rising demand for air travel as virus counts waned. American and Southwest adopted aggressive strategies, only to suffer from debacles that cost them tens of millions of dollars.
As virus transmissions have fallen and vaccinations are extended to younger children, airlines are facing a surge in year-end travel demand after months of staffing trims. As of September, the most recent data available, major passenger airlines employed 56,000 fewer people than before the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics - a contraction of 12%.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Commerce Committee, began an investigation into airline delays after summer disruptions, saying she was concerned airlines mismanaged their resources and possibly had not lived up to lawmakers' expectations for billions in public aid. That investigation is in its final stages, her office said.
At a hearing this week before the House transportation and maritime security subcommittee, John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, questioned whether airlines are prepared for a jump in travelers between Thanksgiving and New Year's. He told lawmakers that airlines' proposed schedules "are simply not possible" given current employment levels.
"This intentional choice to reduce head count has created a less resilient air system that is much more prone to major cancellations and long delays due to predictable operational issues such as bad weather," Samuelsen said.
But carriers disagree, saying they have learned their lessons and carefully matched schedules to staffing levels.
At United Airlines, which avoided many of the problems that plagued its competitors - in part, because it has taken a more conservative approach to the travel rebound - the airline said it is expecting to transport more than 4.5 million passengers during the Thanksgiving travel period, roughly 88% of the number it flew in 2019.
Jon Roitman, United's chief operating officer, said the airline has the ability to move backup teams of employees to areas of greater need.
"We also have contingency plans in place that if, in fact, some sort of gap develops because of really intense irregular ops, we can pull those out," he said.
Frontier Airlines is among a handful of carriers offering more service in November and December than in 2019. Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of commercial at the ultra-low-cost carrier, said it simplified operations over the spring and summer to ensure crews are positioned to manage network disruptions.
He said one challenge this year could be the mix of travelers: Those accustomed to the new rules of travel, such as mask requirements, and those who are anxious because it's their first flight since the start of the pandemic.
"We're conscious that we want to deliver the right experience because we know people are going to be a little bit more on edge than usual," he said.
Other airlines are trying a different tactic to avoid holiday disruptions. American and Southwest are offering bonuses to workers who return in time for the holiday rush.
In a memo to employees, David Seymour, chief operating officer of American, said the carrier will bring back nearly 2,600 flight attendants who were on leave, while 600 new flight attendants are scheduled to begin by the end of the year.
But more money may not be enough to lure back some employees. Pilots at American, who have been at odds with the carrier over working conditions and the federal vaccine mandate, have rejected the carrier's offer of additional pay, which included time-and-a-half for flying on peak days and double pay for those willing to take open holiday shifts.
Denis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said the union, which is in contract negotiations, rejected the proposed incentive package because it wouldn't solve underlying operational issues at the airline, such as tight scheduling.
"You have a giant hole in the roof and you're just trying to stuff dollars into it," he said. "You need to fix the roof."
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the grueling conditions have put a damper on employees' willingness to work overtime - a tool to boost staffing levels during shortages. Still, Nelson said airlines' offers of new financial incentives should help avert serious worker shortages over the holidays.
"I think they're doing some good preparation on that and we're going to have a better holiday than people might have been predicting," she said.
Ravi Sarathy, a professor of international business and strategy at Northeastern University, said airlines are making the right moves, such as reducing schedules and putting staff in spots where problems are most likely to occur. Even so, he said, some elements are out of their control, such as weather.
Harteveldt, the analyst, said this season is one in which patience and compromise are going to be important for travelers. In the air and on the ground, he said: "My hope is that we will have a drama-free Thanksgiving. That's what we all need to hope for."