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.