When Airlines Cancel Flights Due To Staffing, They Lack The Staff To Help Passengers Too

Airline operations have been bad lately. They haven’t had enough staff to operate their flights, so they’ve cancelled flights in advance – and still haven’t had enough staff to operate the flights that are left. Delta cancelled 7% of flights on Sunday. American cancelled over 100 flights. United cancelled nearly as many.

  • They’ll blame weather, and that’s true, but weather happens every year and they haven’t had the margins to respond to it. Weather fouls things up most when there’s no staffing buffer.

  • They’ll blame FAA air traffic control staffing, and that’s true, but U.S. air traffic control has been hobbled for years, mostly because it’s provided directly by government. Separate entities handle air traffic control in Europe and Canada, and they’re better able to make long-term investments in technology (U.S. ATC is only just moving beyond paper flight strips!). Airlines have sought only more government spending subsidies, rather than driving for real reform.

None of the other problems mask the fact that the airlines have problems, and those problems spiral because they’re self-reinforcing.

  • Lack of staff leads to snarled operations
  • Snarled operations leads to need for more staff, to service customers who need rebooking

The lack of staff for rebooking is probably most frustrating of all. American Airlines adopted the slogan ‘caring for people on life’s journey’ but where’s the caring when they don’t have people to help passengers after they cancel flights? And this is after transferring hundreds of people from reservations to the airport, leaving reservations more short-handed.

When I need reservations help at the airport my first stop is usually the airline’s lounge. If you don’t have access, or the lounge is closed, get in line for customer service. But while you’re in line, call the airline. They may pick up the phone before you get to the front of the line. Position yourself to be waiting for both simultaneously. And while you’re on hold waiting for reservations, direct message the airline for help on Twitter.

Don’t call the main reservations line, either. Delta has a special number for travel within 48 hours where they actually usually answer the phone. American’s UK and Sydney reservations lines don’t usually have nearly so bad a wait.

Travel earlier in the day, get to the airport early, book cancellable backup flights with miles, and be proactive coming up with alternate itineraries. Use a credit card that offers trip delay (and baggage delay) coverage. Consider throwing in the towel on a travel day and booking a hotel room – make your unanticipated stay part of the trip. Have patience and enjoy unplanned parts of your trip.

Airlines were supposed to stay fully staffed, with staff ready to work, in exchange for more than $50 billion in direct cash subsidies from taxpayers (plus $25 billion in subsidized loans and more payments to airline contractors). They did not do this. So now we’re paying twice.

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. Use the App folks. . .no need to stand inline. You can get 90% of it done online. Yes the airlines have staffing issues but we all do, so get used to it.

    The other problem that you and social media fails to call out are these people who travel once a year and expect EXP treatment. I have told more people during the past two summers to go to the AA app (or UA or DL) and make changes there. They think due to weather cancellation they expect a hotel room. WRONG. If you going to travel, get educated and learn the rules and tools that can help. Just don’t whine and post it on social media and think it will all be better. . .

  2. “…..book cancellable backup flights…..” which leaves less options for others (and some airlines are canceling proactively because, reasons) but I guess in that scenario it’s dog eat dog?

  3. @sunviking82 I agree with you but you also pointed about that most of these folks probably don’t travel that often and are ignorant as to how to navigate these sort of situations. I know ignorance is no excuse but we default to what we know.

    Like you, I will tell anyone who will listen that you have to be your own advocate because when things go wrong, there’s going to be an overwhelming amount of people needing help, all at the same time. I suggest using the app but that doesn’t always work, DM via Twitter if you can, look to your card benefits if you booked with a card that have such, and be willing to spend a few bucks to jump on another flight if getting home that evening is really important to you.

    But the one thing I try to stress the most to my friends when traveling to Florida, is fly home as early as possible so that you have some room to navigate if things go wrong. The storms that tend to pop up in the afternoon often create chaos in that area. I never take a flight later than noon when visiting Florida…ever.

  4. @sunviking82

    100% agree.
    These people would rather wait five hours in line and then argue with the staff to get the exact same answer they could have gotten five hours earlier from the app.

  5. I agree with “using the app” as decent advice for a non-elite caught up in a cancellation, but the way things are going, the app is going to have you rebooked on a flight more than 24 hours from now about half the time, and most people are not willing to just sit there and accept that without talking to a human. The human’s answer may be no different, but if it’s Thursday 11 pm and the app says I can’t leave until 5:30 am Saturday, I’m going to go talk to someone to see if there are other options.

    Elites are mostly good at finding other options anyway, or knowing when the odds would lead you to conclude, as Gary said, that just grabbing a hotel and living to fight another day is the right call.

  6. “book cancellable backup flights with miles”

    This advice if many do so will only exacerbate a potential trend to bring back general cancellation/change fees like pre-pandemic. And you would have to remember to actually cancel those backup flights if the original one goes as planned, I’ve goofed up this way in the past and wasted miles on “backup” flight not taken!

  7. I am going to make a prediction that over the next few years, we’re going to see a change in management philosophy from lean-and mean to “shit-happens-be prepared”. For years, MBA programs and management have been thinking in terms of just-in-time supply chains and having just the number of workers they need, no more. This works great when everything is working and it maximizes profits, but it gives business no leeway when things go wrong or even really right and there is a surge in demand. Managers who are always looking for fat eventually start cutting muscle, otherwise they start being seen as fat themselves. There’s no real skill involved in doing this, only politics. The new skill will be managers who can prepare for and manage adversity for their companies better than their competitors. Those companies will win market share, their competitors will shrink or die.

    The new word in the post-Covid/post-Ukraine world is “chaos”. A chaotic world is dangerous to the existing order, but it also brings opportunity to those able to manage it. Consumers will do best by abandoning loyalty out of past performance and seek out those providers who deal with the chaos the best for them. This might mean getting better treatment by being loyal instead of being a free agent, e.g. status, or it might mean going with new providers that emerge. Good luck to us all.

  8. I totally understand what Sunviking82 said. What he said makes sense. However, we can’t blame the travelers either. It is a contract and they paid for it. Therefore, when something goes wrong, let’s do right thing. We also do not know the purposes people fly that day. It may be a wedding later that evening, an important business meeting, someone in the family is sick, wife/girlfriend is about to have a baby… that travelers need to be there that day. Using the app and the carriers put those impacted pax on a 2-day later flight might not work. In business, you cannot have a contract and cancel in last minute. I don’t mean to whine or complain, but some carriers must do better for consumers.

  9. Blame the staff?! Screw ya.
    Ignorance or travel once a year NOT AN EXCUSE. PUT YOUR EMAIL AND CELL PHONE IN YOUR BOOKING. If entitled to a hotel it will be emailed to you. Change flight on app. If auto reaccom and it doesn’t work for you wait a few hours and change it;. Immediately after inventory is scarce but as time goes on people cancel and change or don’t go which opens seats.
    If you think you’re entitled to COMPENSATION guess again. Stand in line for that irntontake a pound of flesh on the $15 an hour agent good luck and if you get threatening you’ll be cancelled and ticket a NOGO.

    If you can’t afford to travel with irregular operations, meaning the costvofna taxi and hotel is not in your budget if issues happen you have no business traveling now or ever. Or buy travel insurance but if not in budget stay home.

    Your $50 ticket to Miami entitlrs you to nothing. Get over yourself.

    Use the app. If you are entitled to a hotel

  10. Had to use the special Delta number this past Saturday due to a Covid exposure I found out about that day (and my wife’s positive now, thank you very much…) Was on hold for ten minutes, took a long time to make all the appropriate changes but the agent stayed with me on the phone. Thanks to Delta, and also to Gary for letting us know about the Delta emergency number–it’s now in my phone for good.

  11. Its a good thing we gave these airlines billions and billions of free dollars. Continuing to accept payment for a service (transportation) that they can’t/won’t/refuse to provide is unethical at best and flat out fraud at worse. We REALLY need better consumer protections in this country when it comes to travel.

  12. @T – Depends on what the contract says. My SO negotiates these all day, for business critical infrastructure. And sometimes she hears clients crying on the phone that Supplier X just screwed over their customer. Sometimes the contract says they can do that – but not if SO negotiated it. (You can pay the corporate lawyer now, or you can pay the litigator later. Corporate lawyers aren’t cheap, but they’re way cheaper and a better bet than litigators.)

    Most airline terms of service say airlines can do what they’re doing.

  13. Mr. T: that’s why you leave the day before or even 2 days before. You build some slack into your schedule. You fly as early in the day as possible.
    You have to be proactive.


  14. App sucks and app chat totally failed a couple rebooks in the last 6 months for me. The app is a great way to not get where you are going as 1/2 the time they take your info then nothing happens. Bottom line US needs to regulate airlines like Utility’s.

  15. This article misses the point of “why is this happening?” The author dispels the weather and ATC factors but goes no further. Here’s the inside the cockpit truth: Airlines have either fired, placed on leave of absence, forced others to retire or resign due to their COVID and mandatory vaccination policies. Travel has yet to catch up to prepandemic levels and somehow we find ourselves with leas staff to do less work…what changed? Simple: vaccinations have either injured many who are doing their best to hide their symptoms for risk of losing their pilot’s medical certificate. Also, the more one is vax’d, the more they get reinfected. The data and evidence do not lie, and the truth is often hard to admit once the plane is in a nosedive.

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