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American Airlines passengers suffer frightful Halloween weekend with 1,700 flights canceled since Friday amid staffing woes

Sunday’s cancellations equated to about 30% of American Airlines’ scheduled flights for the day, according to data from tracking service A further 269 flights were delayed as of around midafternoon, following 435 such scheduling breakdowns on Saturday.

To put American’s latest disruptions in perspective, the second-biggest US airline, Delta, had zero cancellations and 59 delays on Sunday. Another major carrier, United Airlines, had zero flights canceled and 130 delayed.

American’s service disruptions made the airline’s Halloween Twitter message look ironic. The company posted a video of a passenger boarding a plane in a witch costume. The accompanying caption suggested that the airline could be relied upon to get its customers to their destinations, saying, “When you’ve got places to be and spells to cast and the broom can’t get you there.”

High winds earlier this week in Dallas, American’s largest hub, triggered this weekend’s cascade of flight disruptions, according to a statement issued by the airline on Saturday. “With additional weather throughout the system, our staffing begins to run tight as crew members end up out of their regular flight sequences,” the carrier said.

And with staffing already stretched thin, the airline didn’t have a cushion to absorb the weather blow. US air carriers are operating with little margin for staffing error as they adjust to rising ticket demand as the travel industry recovers from the pandemic. For instance, when American had a high number of employees call in sick in June, it was forced to cancel more than 300 flights and delay about 1,100 others on one weekend.

The company said it’s still awaiting the return of employees who were previously put on leave, including 1,800 flight attendants who are due back by the end of December. More than 600 newly-hired flight attendants will go into service within the same timeframe.

One potential hindrance to the staffing recovery is a Covid-19 vaccine mandate. A union representative in Tulsa, Oklahoma reportedly said earlier this month that hundreds of American Airlines workers in her city alone may be forced to quit because of their refusal to take the jab by a November 24 deadline.

CEO Doug Parker told CNBC on October 21 that no workers would leave American over the mandate because the company would “continue to work with” those unvaccinated employees who don’t qualify for a religious or medical exemption. But hundreds of current and former staffers protested outside the carrier’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, the next day, demanding “freedom over force” and warning that passengers would be next to face a vaccine mandate.

Also earlier this month, Southwest Airlines backtracked on plans to put employees on unpaid leave if they fail to get vaccinated against Covid-19 by November 24 and are awaiting a ruling on their exemption request. The decision came after days of worker protests outside Southwest’s Dallas headquarters and alleged sick-outs that may have contributed to thousands of flight cancellations, including over 1,000 on October 17 alone.

Southwest continues to face service disruptions. The carrier had 192 flight cancellations on Sunday and 510 delays. It had a whopping 774 delays and 87 cancellations the previous day.

American said its operations should return to normal soon, but tracking data shows that the carrier has already canceled 53 flights that were scheduled for Monday.

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