U.S. Air Travel Melts Down On New Year’s As Employees Call In Sick

It started with United and Delta melting down their operations over the holidays. United had tempted fate promising this wouldn’t happen, that they were more on top of their business than competitors. So if this wasn’t affecting the plans of people throughout the country there would have been an element of schadenfreude.

Part of the problem was a rise in sick call outs due to Covid-19. United had told employees to assume Covid if they weren’t feeling well.

American Airlines had initially avoided the problem, paying flight attendants and some other work groups up to triple their usual pay for perfect attendance. I argued that bonuses being paid out by American, Southwest, and JetBlue could pressure infectious employees to come to work. I’ve heard numerous reports from cabin crew of this happening exactly. At American the cost to a flight attendant for calling in sick could be the equivalent of three months’ pay – which they’re right on the cusp of earning. American wasn’t able to negotiate a deal with its pilots for extra pay for attendance over the holidays, however.

With United’c cancellations continuing they’re resorting to American’s playbook offering pilots triple pay in response to “record levels of sick calls” to get them to pick up open trips.

There are heightened sick calls during the holidays by employees wanting the time off, but record levels of call outs compared to normal holidays in the face of unprecedented virus spread suggests something else. United’s pilot’s union attributes the need for triple pay to Covid-19:

United and the pilots ’union, the Air Line Pilots Association, reached an agreement for higher pay to cover open trips, Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations said Friday in a staff note, which was seen by CNBC.

Pilots will be offered three-and-a-half times their pay for flying open trips between Dec. 30 and Jan. 3 and triple pay for picking up trips between Jan. 4 and Jan. 29, the note said.

“Due to the rapid spread of the COVID Omicron variant, we are currently seeing record levels of pilot sick calls,” the pilots’ union wrote to its members. “The impact on the operation is clear and United has experienced a correspondingly large number of cancellations over the past week.”

Meanwhile Spirit Airlines added Covid pay for flight attendants through January 4.

Cancellations though have now blanketed even airlines that have been offering incentives. Here’s New Year’s Day as of 7 a.m. Eastern:

Cancellations are abundant across airlines at this point, and are already spreading into Sunday and even Monday, despite incentives for employees to show up. Some may come into work sick, others may be calling in sick for the usual New Year’s reasons (with Covid meaning there aren’t the extra crew available to pick up those shifts). And schedule turmoil extends because planes and crew wind up out of position and airlines take time to recover from that. Meanwhile, while it’s possible that Omicron spreads so fast we’ll be peaking soon in parts of the country, the number of people unavailable to work appears to be growing.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

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  1. Retired ATC here. FAA is reporting that the ATC workforce is being impacted by Covid. Controllers work in close quarters and an airborne, transmissible virus could easily rip thru a control facility.

  2. Maryland is getting hit hard by covid. 16,000+ cases daily in a population of 6M. Probably be bad for a few weeks and hopefully after all of the travelers return and then recover, things will be close to normal.

    Obviously ATC is different but many government offices are nearly vacant (70-80% out) the last few weeks of the year as they burn leave they would otherwise lose. With everyone returning from vacations and travel, I’d imagine transmissions to be nasty for a few weeks.

    I was in work last week and there were maybe 20% tops showing up. Many were locals like me who don’t need to travel to see family and new hires without much leave to use. I prefer to use my leave when everyone else is working 🙂

  3. Heard of a secondhand report yesterday that Delta is also offering large bonus pay to FAs right now to pick up extra flights

  4. accuracy also requires noting that there is a large winter storm impacting the Midwest which has cancelled about half of the flights at both Chicago airports – just as Seattle recovers from two rounds of snow in the past week.

    Covid call outs are certainly part of the program but this is winter and thousands of flights get cancelled when winter weather hits a major hub or two.

  5. Plus the after effects of the Denver snow storm yesterday/last night where UA/UAX precanceled flights.

  6. Let this be a warning to all who have to manage schedules, employees, and deadlines…Omicron is going to impact everything in the next few weeks. I am in the DMV and am seeing first hand how wild this variant is. Since Christmas I have had 30 friends test positive here in the area. I knew maybe a handful during the previous two years. Thus far everyone is just cold symptoms but the disruptions are real. For those in the midwest and west coast you have not seen yet how crazy it’s going to get. But it’s coming and when it really starts hitting it will be a matter of a few days until you witness the tsunami.

  7. This is what happens when governments panic, sell fear – and create hysteria.

    People who don’t know they are sick, are subject to massive testing with a sensitive test – and boom, we find lots of cases.

    Can you imagine a world where you have to take a test, to know if you’re sick?
    And THAT is the thing we talk about most?

    This is failure of government, and the evils of corruption and central planning.

    You guys can keep blaming a virus if it makes you feel more righteous though….

  8. The Biden Virus is in full swing. Not shocked given how badly Biden has handled covid and pretty much everything else. The only good thing is that most death will be his voters.

  9. 830,000 + dead Americans from Covid Don, a novel corona virus, more dying every day. And what would you have done differently as both Trump and Biden used varying degrees of government intervention and planning to address the virus. How many dead Americans is enough for you, or maybe you just don’t give a damn ?

  10. @kdogger – interesting that you claim that the more heavily vaccinated population is the one that is going to over-index on dying. Not the MAGA mouth breathers who believe all the misinformation and FUD (even as all the Faux News hosts are themselves vaccinated).

  11. Happy New Year,

    My resolution is to speak the truth and stop miss information. Lies, repeated are never the truth.

    Here’s some truth. . .

    The vaccine, especially after a booster will reduce your ability to get or spread the virus and if you do, symptoms in most cases will be mile or non-existent. Vaccines are never 100% but do a lot of good. Plus the more people who get vaccinated, the opportunity for the virus to mutate drops off. Like the flu, covid will be here and unlike the flu will not be seasonal.

    When some of you who think ” the world is flat” and “vaccine tracks you” realize that even your orange colored leader knows that vaccines work.

    If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your Mom, Dad, family and friends. Stop and think.

    Happy 2022

  12. @Jerry – you and your misinformation spreading anti vax brethren will be an order of magnitude more likely to get hospitalized and die without the vaccine, versus those of us who have gotten it. Enjoy 2022!

  13. Vaxed and boosted. I know it’s not 100% effective but neither is the flu vaccine which I get every year so that if I DO get the flu it won’t be as severe. Also still wearing a mask when at the grocery store. To be honest, it all sucks but we do what we gotta do. I just know that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

  14. Calling in sick when you are not in critical service roles like air travel is unprofessional and should result in termination for repeat offenders

  15. @ TimDunn – I was watching AA for SEA-DFW closely last week in anticipation of a 12-31 flight. Considering I complain frequently about AA here, I’ll give them their due on this occasion – in the snow & ice at SeaTac AA didn’t miss a beat, even as AS stumbled badly. AA runs 4-7 nonstops a day on the SEA-DFW route, and not a one was canceled out of SEA from 12-27 to 12/31 – and at least half those were on time arrivals. And to boot on my 12-31 flight I experienced friendly FA. And ample ice. New Year, new AA ? Lol.

  16. @Kdogger
    Maybe you don’t remember too well. The virus started on Chump’s watch and what did he do but minimize the problem and here we are today blaming everything on Biden. Another “Chump Fool” on this site.

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