Travelers are expected to bear some of the burdens of nationwide labor shortages when they travel this holiday season.

Staffing shortages expected to affect holiday travel

Zachary Halaschak October 14, 11:00 PM October 14, 11:00 PM

Travelers are expected to bear some of the burdens of nationwide labor shortages when they travel this holiday season.

Labor shortages are being felt across industries, resulting in longer wait times at restaurants, shipping delays, and higher costs. But as the United States hurdles toward the busiest travel season of the year, staffing shortages will be more apparent than ever. They may cause issues for travelers looking to venture home for the holidays.

Southwest Airlines caught the country’s attention when it ended up canceling or delaying thousands of flights for several days. While Southwest and its pilots’ union have vociferously denied that the mass cancellations were due to any mass staffing shortages caused by so-called “sickouts” protesting a federal vaccine mandate, some in the airline industry have warned that the mandate could play a role over the holidays.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, sent a letter to the carrier asking that “alternate means of compliance with the Executive Order be made available for professional pilots” so as not to prompt mass firings and unpaid leave.

“All of those members are still able to perform their duties as professional pilots,” the letter read. “To force those pilots out of their positions, rather than offering viable alternatives, will have adverse consequences upon their families and the airline industry as a whole.”

Jan Jones, hospitality and tourism management program coordinator at the University of New Haven, told the Washington Examiner that she is very concerned about just how congested and frustrating holiday travel will be for customers.

Jones pointed out the holidays represent some of the peak travel times for the industry and noted that most schools are let out, further bolstering the peak travel during the holiday season. She said there would be a peak around Thanksgiving and then an even bigger one around Christmas.

Rachel Greszler, an economics research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner that staffing shortages could certainly make holiday travel a lot more complicated, especially when it goes hand in hand with the supply chain crisis.

“Everything out there I think could really add up to just make this a lot more difficult for people to get around, to visit family these holidays,” she said.

Greszler said that an airline or airport being just a few people short can still cause a profound effect on travel. For example, if only one person checks bags at the airport, the line of people waiting to move their bags along and get through security could be enormous, but that line could be far more manageable with just a couple more workers.

Suppose the line of people is too large. In that case, it could result in travelers missing flights and spark a snowball effect resulting in enormous costs and consequences for the traveler and airline — all because just a few more workers were needed to process checked baggage.

The industry also might not be ready for the public’s crushing demand for travel.

For many families, this holiday season will be the first one spent together in one place since before the pandemic in 2019 because last year, vaccines weren’t readily available and many people forwent holiday travel. There could be even more people traveling than anticipated, given that pent-up demand.

Jones said that demand is likely to be further bolstered by those who usually travel internationally and by those who are vaccinated and want to spend a typical holiday with their loved ones after so long.

“People are starting to just get tired of it all, and they are vaccinated; they just want to get back to their normal routines,” she said. Jones pointed out that international travel is still tricky because of the pandemic, so people who might typically travel abroad during the holidays may end up traveling around the U.S., further increasing domestic travel demand.

Costs will also be higher for travelers.

While staff will invariably have to get paid more to attract and retain them, other costs that may be passed on to travelers include rising energy prices. The price of oil and gas has shot through the roof as the country and the world grapple with a massive energy crunch. There is also a chip shortage, which has caused rental car prices to soar.

The most recent measure of job openings found that there are a near-record 10.4 million jobs out there for workers, although people just aren’t biting for a variety of reasons. Companies have had to get creative to lure in workers, offering bonuses and higher pay — all of that translates to higher costs for consumers, though.

“Just everything about the travel process,” Greszler said. “Higher costs for the rental cars, for the Ubers, for the food that you get at the airport. … Everything is becoming more expensive, and I think that Americans are going to have to be prepared to pay more.”

Workers, especially those who practice more specialized trades, can also take a while to get the company moving because they require onboarding and training.

“The problem is, when you have a shortage with staffing, it takes time to train those people. It’s not like you can just throw anyone into a pilot seat,” Jones said.

While the massive cancellations that Southwest experienced are unlikely to be the holiday norm, the company’s problem is very damaging to its brand; thus, airlines will work hard to avoid getting similar black eyes.

Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, said Southwest’s problem with flight cancellations was akin to being “body-slammed” before the holiday season. He said that customers are expected to “avoid Southwest like it’s a new COVID variant” when deciding which airline to take.

Although Schiffer told the Washington Examiner that if the problem of cancellations and delays begins to spread to other airlines because of staffing shortages, the issue wouldn’t stay brand-specific “and would have people concerned about the whole industry.” However, he said that he doesn’t think cancellations on the scale recently seen by Southwest are likely to occur across the board.

It’s not just airlines that are being pinched by rising holiday demand either, but some people might prefer to travel by car to their destinations, a proposition that also comes with hassles and high costs.

“The demand for rental — anything rental right now — RVs, cars, it’s really high, and so if you want to travel over the holiday season, you really need to be booking that now,” Jones said.

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