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Travel disruptions put a damper on holiday celebrations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So I was on a lot of airplanes over the holidays. And yes, it was super crowded in those airports. But my family and I actually didn't have any issues with delays or cancellations. However, a lot of people did and still are. Thousands of flights have been canceled. Hundreds more are already on the books for today and tomorrow. Now, some of this is because of winter storms. But airlines are blaming a lot of it on staff calling out sick with COVID.

David Slotnick is with us now. He's the senior aviation business reporter for the travel website The Points Guy. David, thanks for being here.

DAVID SLOTNICK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So it's part of your job to talk to people traveling the friendly skies. What have you been hearing from passengers as of late?

SLOTNICK: Well, so it's really twofold. It's pretty funny because a lot of people have had experiences like what you just described. I did, certainly, traveling over the Christmas holiday. So for some people, they're a little confused about why there's been so much fuss because their flights have gone without a hitch. On the other hand, I've been hearing from people who have had flights delayed for hours, days, even a week.

MARTIN: Oh, gosh.

SLOTNICK: People have been stranded. People have had a lot of trouble getting home. And there have been people who've been rescheduled by the airlines and just seen flights canceled one after another - every day just cascading. So it's been a bad situation for sure for the people who've been affected.

MARTIN: Right. And for anyone who's ever gone through this, you get a flight canceled, and they say you got to call (laughter) to get it rescheduled. That is a nightmare - trying to get an actual human who can help you on the phone.

SLOTNICK: It is definitely a challenge. The good news is that there's a lot of this that you can do yourself these days. A lot of the times when our flight's canceled, you're rebooked automatically. And if it's not a flight that you like, you can change it within the app or on the website yourself. But there are some times that you need to get through to a human. I have a coworker who called one of the airlines and cited an 11-hour wait time...

MARTIN: Oh.

SLOTNICK: ...As she was trying to get home from a wedding this week.

MARTIN: Oh, my...

SLOTNICK: So...

MARTIN: That's...

SLOTNICK: ...Definitely not ideal.

MARTIN: Yeah. So, I mean, how much of your job is predictive? Like, what are you hearing from airlines about how long these disruptions will go on? I mean, they do have a follow-on effect, right? It's hard to catch up once these cancellations start.

SLOTNICK: Yeah, absolutely. So now that we're past the worst of the holiday week, I think that looking back, this really was more of a perfect storm than we even realized at the time. These weather storm - these winter storms just hit different hubs around the country - all pretty major hubs - Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Detroit. And it just created a mess that was on top of the people who've been calling out sick with COVID as the omicron cases have surged around the country. And this was all during the busiest travel week of the year.

So the situation now is a little bit different. Demand plummets. This is usually the very low season for airlines. There's, in a perfect world, more business travel for them. That's happening a little bit less as offices have pushed back reopenings again. So the good news there is that there's more room for airlines to negotiate. There's more of an ability for them to maybe combine flights or cancel flights proactively and then reschedule people just in advance. So that's the good news. The bad news is I think this is really going to mirror the rest of the pandemic. So as it surges around the country, I think we're going to keep seeing delays like this ebb and flow. I mean, pilots are just part of the general population. So...

MARTIN: Right.

SLOTNICK: You know, if people in one city are getting sick, then it makes sense the pilots who are there are also going to get sick.

MARTIN: I mean, we know that the industry writ large - the airline industry - has just been ransacked by the pandemic. Airline CEOs told Congress last month that they're having trouble hiring enough employees. The flight attendants union says employees aren't as eager to take on overtime. United and Spirit Airlines just decided to offer more pay to onboard staff. Is that kind of incentive going to help?

SLOTNICK: It definitely helps. It just may not be enough in the short term. A lot of people are - I mean, they're tired. It's the same as any other labor market - people who've been working under these conditions, which are difficult at best, for the last two years. And I think it's just, you know, a lot of burnout, just like we're seeing in other sectors.

MARTIN: Senior aviation business reporter David Slotnick with The Points Guy.

Hey, David, we appreciate your time and context. Thanks.

SLOTNICK: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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