American Airlines Cancels Post-Holiday Flight When Cabin Crew Shows Up Sick At The Airport

American Airlines and Southwest offered substantial incentives for crew to work over the holidays, avoiding sick calls. While they faced cancellations over the weekend, those weren’t near the levels of United and Delta. I warned that financially incentivizing crew not to call out sick could wind up spreading the virus because it penalized crew who might be under the weather if they didn’t show up (losing out on things like triple pay).

My sense is that where American did cancel flights over the holiday weekend, it was more due to unavailable pilots than flight attendants. There was no deal in place to pay pilots extra to avoid call outs.

I’ve been criticized, mostly by flight attendants, for suggesting that they would ever come to work sick – and by some managers for suggesting the airline would encourage this. I was not suggesting all flight attendants would do this, or that it’s the intent of the airline, but at the margin the high cost of not showing up to work – not just foregoing premium pay for a trip, but losing out on a perfect attendance bonus close to earning it at the end of the holiday period – could push someone to show up or shade their perception of whether they’re really sick, perhaps wondering if something might just be allergies and whether they’re still alright to fly in a circumstance that they’d have considered scrapping the trip in a different year.

American Airlines flight AA2578 from San Diego to Miami last night appears to be just the sort of flight that I had in mind, where a flight attendant went to lengths to try to show up – as incentivized by premium holiday pay – even when they were too sick to fly., according to a reliable source.

I’m told that one of the flight attendants was sick but went to the airport anyway, intending to fly, but called in sick once they’d arrived. There’s a second hand suggestion that the crewmember had Covid symptoms, but this isn’t necessary for the point. The flight wound up cancelling and the remaining crew – two pilots and three flight attendants – operated the aircraft to Miami without passengers as American Airlines AA9782.

Since the crew was below the FAA minimum of 4 (one flight attendant per 50 passenger capacity) the aircraft which was booked to 171 passengers out of 172 seats couldn’t operate as a commercial flight and so the redeye at the end of the holidays was cancelled. But the plane was still needed in Miami the next day.

Incentives alone can’t keep really sick crew working. And it’s worth noting that despite an incentive program in place to encourage attendance, JetBlue still faced significant cancellations over the holiday period.

Nonetheless it’s an informed guess to suspect that once holiday pay premiums lapse January 3 we’ll see more crew willing to call in sick (though after the period in which they’ve historically had reason to call out even when not actually sick).

I’m actually glad that the flight attendant scheduled to work AA2578 made the decision to call out sick, even if it was at the last minute!  Better for passengers to be cancelled on than to have service in the aisle from someone that’s ill, even if they didn’t know or understand the tradeoff at the time their flight was canceled. 

And certainly better for the rest of the crew to remain healthy.  And better for the airline because one cancel from one sick flight attendant is better than the cascading effect from several crewmembers getting sick and having subsequent cancels. It’s striking though that there wasn’t a single reserve flight attendant available in a base airport from which multiple redeyes are scheduled.

Here the flight attendant had to give up their perfect attendance bonus if they hadn’t called out sick yet.  I wish America had an exception that wouldn’t penalize employees for not showing up to work if they presented with a positive Covid-19 test.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I am curious, is there some reason they could not have operated the flight with less passengers to meet the ratio requirement? Why shuttle the aircraft empty?

  2. The question to ask that should answer the “will FAs come to work with COVID?” question is “How much money is an FA potentially giving up?”

    If I’m reading the bonus right, an FA gets an additional 150% of their pay if they work the 7 week holiday period without a single callout. One callout nixes that entire bonus. 20 hours/week for $30-$70/flight hour base pay for 7 weeks is $4200-$9800 in base pay, or $6300-$14,700 in potential additional bonus pay they give up by reporting they have COVID. Note this also does not include the ‘peak holiday’ bonus pay they receive on top of this for the specific Thanksgiving/Christmas days in this 7 week period.

    This isn’t some pesky “I’m giving up a $200 bonus”. It’s “I’m giving up the equivalent of almost 3 months salary” by reporting they have COVID.

    Some FAs who suspect they have COVID will still abide by the rules, but many, especially those financially strapped at the moment, will likely say “I’ll wear a mask and try to hand sanitize more”

  3. I traveled on American Airlines Christmas day from DTW-PHL-GSP-CLT. While flying, other passengers expressed concerns about whether the flight attendants were infected with COVID while scooping out ice to accompany their beverages or serving snacks.

    It’s good to learn that one American Airlines flight attendant sacrificed premium holiday triple pay and made the excellent decision not to fly while infected with COVID to help protect their passengers and crew.

    Fun fact: locating an air sickness bag next to a crew jump seat can be challenging.

  4. Agree with Stuart. Isn’t it better to IDB 21 pax (and fly with 150 pax and 3 FAs) than cancel the flight entirely? What gives?

  5. FA on my flight from Paris last week had ‘laryngitis’ so the purser had to do all the talking and take everyone’s meal and drink orders on my side of the aircraft so said FA could serve with minimal talking.

  6. Flight attendant minimums are based generally on number of occupiable seats not actual load factor (passengers boarded). Even with 2 passengers on the plane four flight attendants would have been required under the regs.

  7. SAN is not an AA base staffed with reserve flight attendants. It is a satellite base of LAX. Had there been more advanced notice, a FA could have been deadheaded in from LAX or PHX to operate the flight, that is if there were enough in those bases.

  8. Incorrect
    Flight attendant staffing is based on the number of installed not occupied seats
    An A319 with 149 seats requires 3 FAs while 151 seats adds another FÃ

  9. I don’t know why anyone would be angry at what you are suggesting. You are simply stating what has been tested over and over in a sociology 101 class. It is simple human behavior and dangling the carrot. It can produce dangerous behaviors in some.

  10. @Tim, Interesting. I did not know that. With that, you think a mechanic called in could have removed a half row in under a half hour, thrown it in the belly, and off they go with only three passengers inconvenienced. But I have no idea.

  11. Yes. I think we agree.
    An airline cannot say that they will only occupy 149 seats on a 199 seat aircraft and use 3 flight attendants. Some airlines have physically removed seats in order to operate a flight

  12. Doesn’t this story confirm that you were wrong in your article? The flight attendant ultimately called in sick despite the pay confirming what many AA flight attendants have said — they aren’t flying sick despite the pay. How would any of us know if the symptoms worsened (woke up at the hotel thinking it was allergies) or, perhaps, the Flight Attendant realized what the symptoms could be at the airport?

    AA isn’t the only airline incentivizing flight attendants to pick up trips with extra pay as a percent over their normal pay. United and Delta are doing it as well via their own contracts or company policy (Delta) just like they always have. If you want to make the case that the extra AA pay may incrementally incentivize more than the incremental pay that UA and DL pay, great. But Delta and United both incentivize employees to pick up trips where they don’t have enough staff. So the perverse incentives you mention are still there for AA, DL, and UA.

  13. My question is why think flight attendants have some sort of strong moral compass? From what I’ve experienced for the past 30 years of traveling, they’re exactly the same as anyone else. Some are good, some are monsters that I’ve watched try to pick fights with passengers for the hell of it, and the vast majority don’t care one way or the other about the self loading cargo.

  14. Hey Gary

    Still advocating maskless flights? Is it time to basically say eff it and let Omicron rip? Seems to be making it difficult for the airlines, NFL, NHL and soon hospitals to operate if we require people not be infected when they show up to work.

    Just wondering what you envision?

  15. it’s not the # of passengers on the plane for a commercial airline, it’s the number of seats that determines the required # of flight attendants

  16. Flight attendant sick rates typically go up between Christmas and New Years. This happened well before COVID. People like to have the day off and will often use remaining sick days as an unscheduled vacation day. The pay incentives aren’t causing FAs to go to work sick, they are rewarding healthy FAs who show up. We should be thankful that they are working, so we can visit friends and family. American and Southwest did a great job with their Christmas flying. Gary should be singing their praises, but his blog is biased toward UA and DL.

  17. I realize you’re discussing a domestic flight here (SAN-MIA), but I just learned that on AA, crew does not have to test before an international flight — even though every passenger does.

    The only exception is Israel, where crew has to test before takeoff and upon landing. Currently, two AA flight crew members are on a 10-day quarantine in Israel.

    If the flights were turnarounds and the crew never left the aircraft, that might be one thing. But these FAs and pilots overnight in hotels in international locations.

    Do you know if Delta or UA test their crews before international flights?

  18. Despicable that the airline does not excuse those with positive covid tests from the attendance requirement in order to get the bonus. This is a complete failure of management.

  19. …and you know this all first hand how?

    Maybe the flight attendant thought it was allergies, or left home feeling fine and then got sick.

    Seems like dammned if they do, damned if they don’t.

  20. “I realize you’re discussing a domestic flight here (SAN-MIA), but I just learned that on AA, crew does not have to test before an international flight — even though every passenger does.” This is outrageous. The very crew that is coming face to face with passengers? They could infect passengers leading to those passengers subsequently testing positive in a foreign country and getting stranded in a foreign quarantine. No reason why at the bare minimum airline crew aren’t taking rapid tests before flights.

  21. Went a bit beyond sick. Jury duty and military reserve also XLED the holiday pay. Reserves who didn’t fly did not get it either.

  22. Calm down @Bill, Delta and United do not require their crews to take a covid test unless the international destination requires it. Crew members are generally exempt from certain customs requirements — including covid testing (exemptions are Israel and Australia). For example – there’s no COVID test required for crews returning to the US.
    From CDC website:
    “Crew members on official duty assigned by the airline or aircraft operator that involves operation of aircraft, or the positioning of crew not operating the aircraft (i.e., on “deadhead” status), are exempt from the requirements of the Order provided their assignment is under an airline’s or aircraft operator’s occupational health and safety program.”

    Also @Bill — should the airlines cancel flights and strand passengers if tests run out and are not available to crew members? It’s nearly impossible to get a test right now.

  23. @Bill I agree there is no reason crew members shouldn’t be tested before operating flights to make sure they are not infected.

    Also with COVID hitting so many airline crews hard the only airline that hasn’t had any major problems over the Christmas holiday is American Airlines and one has to wonder how is that possible especially with so many breakthrough cases as a result of Omicron. Are American Airlines flight attendants immune to Omicron or have their flight attendants just been showing up to work sick with COVID just to to qualify for that huge bonus American is set to pay out if they can make it through January 3rd without calling out.

  24. For those of you asking why they couldn’t just reduce the amount of passengers and operate anyway, the FAA goes by airplane capacity not actual passengers count. Once a plane is certified by the FAA with X amount of FAs, there always has to be that many FAs on board, even if there were only 1 passenger.

  25. San Diego is not a crew base but a satellite base. Satellite bases are staffed with flight attendants that live in the area and are assigned specific trips. There are no additional crew “sitting around ” to cover incidents like this. As far as why the aircraft was sent empty, FAA requirements for staffing are based on number of seats not actual bodies onboard.

  26. I’m an instructor at a regional partner of a mainline. I called out sick for my last trip of the month and my perfect attendance bonus went bye-bye; I would have been a hindrance to the operation, compromised passenger and crew safety with an undetermined affliction and likely would have come home early anyway being too sick to work. A student of mine admitted to working hurt (his back) just to make bonus. While it’s not anywhere near mainline’s potential windfall, it was still potentially around $1500 for the holiday periods and December. Moral compass or not, it is tempting.

  27. I am a FA of 26years with AA. On a 321 (which was the a/c in question), you have to have 1 FA per 50 seats on the a/c, regardless if occupied or not. You can’t remove seats because the certificate of operation has the number of seats on it and that’s what the FAA goes by. Also, you must have a FA for each door (a FA can be responsible for 2 doors in his/her “row”) and a 321 has 8 doors which means you must have 4 FA’s minimum. Each FA operates 2 sets of windows/doors. I hope that clears some things up.

  28. This is one of the crises in the world.
    Which nations can prove to know how to handle Covid related problems or any major events effectively.
    Nation or countries’ crisis management teams and government must work together to quickly help fix any major events to save humanity and world academies.

  29. Glad to hear someone had personal responsibility. But, how many FA’s and pilots called out with “COVID” just to have extra time off? Company can’t request any medical information, so I think some used it towards their advantage.

  30. CDC wants healthcare workers to come to work sick. At this point what’s the difference. Sad state of this pandemic and industry.

  31. SAN is not a crew base. And minimum number of flight attendants required is based on 1 per 50 seats. Not number of passengers.

  32. Wheres your article criticizing delta united for their canceations more than triple AA most days.
    But of course AA gets criticized. We know who pays you! What a joke

  33. Legit question here as someone UK based not US. Isn’t there a requirement for CC/ FAs to test pre-flight?

    BA have that policy in place along with several EU based carriers, SIN, EY, the lost oges on around the world tbh.

    From r a country that, for all intents and purposes has “no mask,no fly, no excuses( medical reasons) cared about (( yes, yes I know that’s not strictly how it is, but I’m practical terms of argue it kinda is)) it sea bizarre such a thing wouldn’t be in place. Said test result could protect/ insulate the member of staff from loss of bonus as they could provide evidence and mandates in most US jurisdictions require self isolation and it would give carriers more time/ resource planning to cover such things off even outside of hubs.

    If it IS a thing and I’ve assumed incorrectly then please let me know but if it is then how/ why was/ did this become an issue in the 1st place?

  34. and wheres the article about delta? not a work always united and AA you dump on
    Delta has canceled more than AA and SWA
    Today AA canceled 10
    Delta 137

    no a peep and its hasnt just been today! joke of a journalist haha

  35. The news is not what you WANT it to be but what it is.
    It is clear that AA and WN have avoided high numbers of sick calls because of paying premium pay but their labor costs are bound to be much higher for the 4th quarter. Further, they have now incentivized their crew members to demand premium pay to get through holidays in the future. There are many reports of AA and WN flight attendants coughing and demonstrating other signs of illness for which they would otherwise not report to work. AA and WN might well come up w/ much lower cancellation rates for the month of December but it is doubtful that they did the right thing in terms of disease management, future labor relations, and their own financial performance.

    The number of cancellations is fairly meaningless but the percentage of network is. Southwest and American are operating similar levels of mainline flights followed by Delta without the number of mainline United flights pretty far behind.
    Alaska, JetBlue, Spirit and the bunch are all much smaller.

    United’s 100 plus cancellations is a much higher percentage than the same number at AA, DL or WN.

    Winter weather is also heavily impacting airline on-time performance esp. in the west. Alaska has been consistently cancelling 20% or more of its schedule while Delta has had over 50 – highly unusual for them, heavily because Seattle can’t manage the snow and ice they have gotten. Both AS and DL generally rank pretty high in DOT on-time and cancellations but when they are as bad as they are now, there are good reasons – and it is their shared Seattle hub.

    JetBlue has now cancelled 15% or more of their flights for the next 2 weeks. They have never done well on on-time but their ability to staff their flights is now stretched; their crews are heavily based in the NE which is the epicenter of omicron. their pilots rejected a plan for premium pay to help get the company through the holidays.

    Winter is just starting. When Chicago, New York, Washington DC and Dallas have multiple rounds of bad weather – as they are certain to do – premium pay won’t make a difference.

  36. FAA does not allow reducing the number of flight attendants based on the number of passengers. It is 1 for every 50 seats with a minimum of 2. If you had an aircraft with 199 seats and only had 1 passenger, they would still be required to have 4 FAs

Comments are closed.