Are staffing problems in the travel industry permanent?

AA was the first to cancel operations due to staffing problems. Soon others will as well.

staffing shortagesAny situation involving labor staffing problems is complicated. But it’s pretty clear that American Airlines did furlough many pilots. And pilots who have been away from the cockpit for a length of time do need to be retrained and recertified. That is going to take time for the airline. They need all their pilots to fly all their scheduled flights.

For those not in the industry, “enough” pilots means actually more pilots than American actually needs to fly their flights. Because even without a pandemic going on, there are weather, mechanical and other issues that result in airlines needing backup crews. Especially since there are strict rules as to how many hours pilots can fly.

Other airlines are having similar staffing problems. Lack of trained staff is choking the travel world.

And as I write, there are stories beginning to emerge about Southwest also having staffing issues.  But from what I can see, it’s not just airlines who are struggling. I am not an economist and this post is based on anecdotal knowledge only. On the other hand, I’m hearing about and experiencing problems from friends, colleagues, and clients across the industry. As travel begins to resume for many Americans, airlines, rental car companies, hotels, limo organizations, and more are faced with staffing problems.

Unlike some industries that adapted over months to a virtual world, the travel industry shut down virtually overnight. Many, if not most, people I know were furloughed — if not immediately, then later on, as it became obvious the pandemic staffing problems were not going to be short-term. (Remember the slogan, “15 days to slow the spread?”)

Many who left the travel industry may never return — uncertainty abounds.

You are being secretly taxed at airportsAs the shutdown continued, a number of people I know not only found other jobs, they decided to stay in those jobs. Or in some cases, they decided to retire. Others aren’t close to making a final decision. Despite the country reopening there’s still a lot of uncertainly. And, there is also worry that something like the Delta variant could shut things down again. Being laid-off or furloughed once is tough enough, but two or three times is a whole different story.

The aviation industry also really doesn’t know what will happen with business travel going forward. Remember, much of the hotel and airline industry has been built around business travel. Ditto many travel agencies. To handle the business travel numbers that airlines hope to attract will mean greater staffing shortages before good customer service returns.

Travel is faced with low pay and almost impossible-to-use perks. Will workers who leave travel decide to return?

The travel industry has long been relatively low-paying. Plus, there are usually travel perks and some are reciprocal with airlines, car, hotel, and cruise industries. And most people I know in the industry love to travel.

Now, however, travel itself is a lot less fun than it used to be. And less predictable. Personally, I’ve lost track of the industry friends I know who have gone into different lines of work as at least a short-term option, from retail to real estate. Will they come back? Who knows?

It is difficult to do many travel jobs remotely.

While many parents, along with those helping elderly relatives, have struggled to work at home while acting as a caregiver, at least it’s theoretically possible. One hotel person I know, for example, decided she would stick with jobs that allowed her to stay home with her child. Others in the industry have talked about realizing how much it cost them to do their jobs. Expenses include daycare, commuting costs, clothes, meals out, etc.

Travel agents/advisors like ourselves face compensation that varied greatly before the pandemic. The basic differences are between salaried to commission jobs. And many of us, despite online travel competition, were doing quite well. Now of course, travel has been largely nonexistent for a year. Many of us who weren’t furloughed and/or continued to work as independent agents have not been making a living wage.

Most travel advisors get paid when travel actually happens — all canceled trips hurt financially.

Join Us for Cybersecurity BenefitsEven as travel resumes, compensation lags. While most travel agents charge fees now, much of our compensation comes from suppliers. In some cases, airlines still do pay commissions to travel agencies. However, hotels, cruise lines, and tour companies don’t pay anything until a passenger actually travels. This means, yes, our clients and us agents suffer when tour operators keep postponing trips or a supplier cancels a trip. We travel agents just keep rebooking land arrangements over and over again, usually without compensation.

In fact, while writing this post, at one point I was on a call for almost three hours with a cruise line. I rebooked a cruise for the second time for clients who do not feel comfortable traveling this fall.  And the holiday cruise they are rebooking departs in 2022. This means it will be until late fall 2022 until I get paid for this. I could fill pages with similar stories, my own and my colleagues’.

In addition, only some airlines pay commission at the time of ticketing. Plus, none of them pay agents any additional amount when we reissue tickets because they change flights, often repeatedly. In one example, I booked a family of three to Boston from Sacramento in April for late June. And I redid the tickets three times before their trip. They didn’t change their flights, the airline did.

Increasing bad behavior from frustrated passengers goes together with a lack of customer service.

And on top of everything, the air rage stories are making headlines. Now, travelers are taking out frustration on other industry employees who they work directly with. They complain about everything from face masks and social distancing rules, to wait times or reduced services. And it can be just about everything — one client complained their in-room coffee machine only had Coffeemate, not real cream or milk in the mini-fridge.

Now, most people who’ve been in the travel industry for any length of time know it’s not as glamorous as some imagine. And travel isn’t the only industry dealing with pandemic issues. But the combination of uncertainty, relatively low pay, inability to work remotely, poor traveler protections, and travelers behaving badly is a major problem. We may find that even if and when COVID becomes a non-issue, staffing problems and growing traveler dissatisfaction may be here to stay.

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