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Holiday travel begins for airlines amid staff shortages and weather problems

Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 10:02 AM CST
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(CNN) - Airports across the country will be busy this week as Americans head off to their holiday destinations.

The Transportation Security Administration expects the flow of passengers this week to rival pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

The frustrations of Thanksgiving travel are back at airports across the country.

The latest estimate from the TSA is that 20 million people will take to the skies for the holiday.

That means this year’s rush will look nothing like it did last year.

“It’s almost back to where it was before the pandemic,” holiday traveler Joe McCabe said.

Other travelers said it was good to feel as if things were relatively normal.

“People feel really safe about leaving and are excited to reconnect with friends and family,” traveler Jess Hendricks said.

Now the question is whether airlines can handle the rebound.

United Airlines Network Operations Center in Chicago is monitoring 3,900 departures a day, packed with the most passengers since the start of the pandemic.

“I’m ready to deliver a great product to our customers,” operations director David Kensick said.

Kensick said the goal is to head off staffing and weather delays before they cause travelers to miss their flight.

“I am confident on delivering a safe and reliable operation this Thanksgiving,” he said.

Shortages of flight crews contributed to schedule meltdowns at both Southwest and American Airlines in October, leaving thousands stranded by canceled flights.

“If management fails after Mother Nature hits and a storm hits to connect us to the airplane, then you’ve got headlines,” said Captain Dennis Tajer, who represents the American Airlines pilot union, Allied Pilots Association.

American said 1,800 flight attendants just returned from pandemic leaves of absence.

It is also paying flight attendants time-and-a-half for working this week.

American’s 14,000 pilots said that that is not enough and turned down a similar offer in hopes of sending a message.

“It’s incredibly frustrating, because we don’t see the structural changes happening,” Tajer said.

Airlines insist they are out of the woods and are ready for their biggest test of the pandemic.

“Through all the challenges we faced, it’s just made us a bit more agile in dealing with any issues that come up, so we are more prepared when we get to the holiday season,” Kensick said.

The TSA said millions are expected to travel back home Sunday.

That will likely make it the biggest day for air travel seen in years, so travelers should be prepared to be patient if they plan on joining the fray.

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