By Abhijith Ganapavaram and Aishwarya Nair
(Reuters) – Cabin crew, pilots and support staff at U.S. airlines are reluctant to work overtime during vacation travel season despite being drawn to hefty financial incentives due to fear growing from contracting COVID-19 and the prospect of dealing with unruly passengers, three airline unions have said.
This reluctance, combined with bad weather and understaffing at airlines affected by the pandemic, has resulted in massive flight cancellations over the past week, unions said. The issues are likely to cause more tension in the coming weeks as the spread of the Omicron variant accelerates.
“We have negotiated vacation bonuses to help with operational challenges, but there is no limit to how much you can stretch people,” said Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants- CWA (AFA), representing 50,000 flight attendants from 17 airlines, a statement.
In the months leading up to the holidays, airlines were courting employees to ensure a strong workforce, having laid off or laid off thousands of people in the past 18 months as the pandemic crippled the industry.
The airline industry is also feeling additional pressure, as employment figures are still below pre-pandemic levels, but the total number of hours worked by fewer staff has almost fully rebounded.
The industry was hoping staff would work overtime to carry a record number of passengers since the start of the pandemic, according to the AFA.
But the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, which is leading to unprecedented COVID-19 cases in the United States, has caused staff to rethink workloads. As of Thursday, more than 1,200 flights were canceled within, to or from the United States as of 3:29 p.m. ET, according to data from the flight tracking website FlightAware.com.
United Airlines said the nationwide spike in Omicron cases had a direct impact on its operations. Southwest Airlines Co said it had yet to see any impact on its operations.
JetBlue Airways Corp said it was slashing its schedule through Jan. 13 by about 1,280 flights due to illness among crew members.
Delta Air Lines Inc said incentive pay was offered to flight crews, but did not elaborate further.
American Airlines Group Inc, Alaska Air Group Inc, Spirit Airlines Inc, Skywest Inc and Hawaiian Holdings Inc did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Thursday that an increasing number of agency employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
“To maintain safety, the volume of traffic at some facilities could be reduced, which could lead to delays during peak periods,” an FAA spokesperson said.
TESTED AND DIFFICULT PASSENGERS
Violent skirmishes between passengers and flight crew have also reached an all-time high this year, prompting US regulators to crack down. In early November, the FAA said it referred more than three dozen unruly passengers to the FBI for possible criminal charges.
Yet many cabin crew are concerned about their safety on board.
“It’s not worth the risk when tensions are high to go out and risk injury or possibly disability on the job,” said Thom McDaniel, international vice president of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), who represents more than 150,000 members across several sectors, including airlines.
For example, U.S. prosecutors in Colorado charged a 20-year-old Californian with assaulting a flight attendant on an October 27 American Airlines flight to Santa Ana, Calif., Which forced pilots to confuse the flight.
The AFA and the TWU have both issued public appeals to regulators to address the growing incidents on board.
JUICY INCENTIVE PAYMENT NOT ENOUGH
Airlines have offered bonuses and up to three times the pay to employees working during the holidays, but few are biting.
“A lot of flight attendants are unwilling to take on (extra shifts) even for extra pay because they fear for their own safety,” McDaniel said.
Some pilots also refused additional pay. The American Airlines pilots union had declined the company’s offer of double pay to work during the holidays, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters last month.
“We have limits imposed by the FAA and those are sometimes approached, but what you have is a human limit,” said Allied Pilots Association spokesman Dennis Tajer, who represents pilots of American Airlines.
The Allied Pilots Association representing Delta pilots said resolving the scheduling issues will be a priority when the union resumes contract negotiations with the airline in January.
(Reporting by Abhijith Ganapavaram and Aishwarya Nair in Bengaluru, additional reporting by Dan Burns in New York and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Ben Klayman and Bernard Orr)