If early signs are any indication, air travelers should buckle up for a turbulent 2022. The new year is starting off with weeks of flight delays and cancellations brought on by winter storms and rising COVID cases. At the heart of the issue is staffing challenges. Aviation analyst Jay Ratliff says airlines still haven't recovered their pre-pandemic staff, even as demand for leisure travel has returned to near pre-pandemic levels. "One of the things really creating a problem right now is the ability or inability to make sure they get the employees they need," he tells KTRH. "Right now, it's just not happening."
Indeed, Delta reports losing 8,000 employees to COVID in the past month, while Southwest's CEO said this week they have 3,000 employees with the virus. When you add that on top of early retirements and layoffs that happened early in the pandemic, plus all the employees fired for not complying with vaccine mandates, you get the current situation. "How quickly they can replenish the people lost through early retirements and things of that nature, that's really going to be the key moving forward that's going to determine just how well the airlines can respond," says Ratliff.
"If (airlines) remain this year, as they did last year, with an inability to hire, they're going to have to reduce their schedules even more than they have, so they operate only as many flights as their workforce will allow," he continues.
The other big problem facing the airline industry is the continued loss of business and corporate travel, which has yet to recover from the pandemic. That sector alone typically accounts for 70% of airline revenues. "How do you recoup that much lost revenue? You're going to have to raise fares, you're going to have to do other things to make up for that lost revenue," says Ratliff. "And I'm telling you, airlines are going to have a very difficult time doing that."
What it all means is if you are planning to travel this year, book and plan well in advance. "The best advice is to buy your tickets as early as you can...for spring break, summer, September, Thanksgiving...none of that is considered too early," says Ratliff. "Buy your tickets early and lock in the fare."