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Airlines: 'A lot of stressors' leading to cancellations, flight attendant union president says

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss airline delays and cancellations amid surging travel demand, labor shortages, and weather disruptions.

Video transcript

BRIAN CHEUNG: Over 53,000 flights delayed this week and nearly 20,000 canceled heading into the holiday weekend. That's according to the aviation data company Flight Aware. This comes as Delta and other airlines implement 100 daily flight cuts beginning today.

Joining us now to discuss the airline industry and the summer outlook is the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, Sara Nelson. Great to have you on the program this morning, Sara. Look, you see Ed Bastian from Delta already apologizing ahead of time, saying historic challenges right now. What are you seeing in terms of the demand right now and the pressures that's putting on an already fragily-staffed industry.

SARA NELSON: Well, thank you. I mean, we have to recognize where we are on the heels of this pandemic and, of course, the fact that we're still in the middle of it. So people are still getting sick, too. And with the release of the mask mandate, we are seeing people get sick who stayed healthy, actually, for two years with that mask mandate in place. So that is another pressure, too.

What we're seeing really is what was happening pre-pandemic. We had staffing levels cut to minimum staffing levels, so there's no give in the operation. We had all of the unions across the board ready to go into negotiations. We're 80% unionized in the airline industry-- ready to go into negotiations in 2020. Those were all put off. So as you're talking about labor shortages and attracting people to jobs, we haven't been able to lock in those new contract rates and attract people to these jobs and get that movement going, as well. So that is another stressor, too.

And as the airlines are trying to ramp up with the new demand, they're getting airplanes that were sitting, putting them back in place. You have highly skilled jobs, like ATC jobs, like pilot jobs that take training time. Some of those training operations were down due to COVID as well. So this is really kind of a perfect storm going on here, in addition to actually some weather. And we have to remember that planes only take off if it's safe, and it's not always the airline's fault if those planes are not getting up in the air.

But there's a lot of stressors. I'm really glad, actually, that the airlines are cutting back on capacity ahead of time so they don't have people coming to the airport and over-promising and not being able to deliver and saying up front so that people are checking their flights. They're very aware. And we're setting expectations so that hopefully, we can do a better job of meeting the demand from the public.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, I mean, let's pick up on that point, Sara. Because I was thinking today, well, July 1 is right ahead one of the busiest weekends in the summer, and here we are talking about Delta and American Airlines cutting back their flights. Obviously, this is something that they had warned far in advance. Is the new reality here it's just not going to be as frequent? That if it is about the supply-demand dynamics and what is possible right now, are we just going to have to deal with the fact that these flights aren't going to be as frequent?

SARA NELSON: So Akiko, we talked about this a lot during the pandemic. We put in place a historic workers-first package for the airline relief, and what that put in place was payroll support for workers to keep us in place. If we had not had that, we wouldn't be able to meet this demand at all because airline jobs do require certification and training time. And we would be in a much, much worse place.

But as we-- and let me just say, too, there's still controls on the corporations and corporate greed. There's no stock buybacks. They're banned through September 30 of this year, and executive compensation is capped through March of next year. But as the airlines were starting to ramp up and starting to compete with each other in a normal way, they really over-promised because they were trying to grab that market share and they weren't really ready to deliver.

So now they're pulling back a little bit. We're trying to normalize this and trying to respond. But we're also working with airlines like American Airlines on incentive programs so that people have some support to get to work. We would encourage all airlines to put in place positive space tickets for flight attendants and other workers to get to work because oftentimes, we can't afford to live in the cities where we're based. So if you're not providing that travel and planes are full, we can't get to work and staff those planes. And there's a lot of operational support that can happen right now to try to help. But cutting back on that capacity ahead of time and helping people understand what to expect is important.

I do want to recognize, though, this is not the new norm. As they staff up, as they start to understand what's really happening with the demand, they're going to be able to better meet it as they're also training people and getting them back into the seats where they can fly. We'll be able to meet more demand, and capacity will be able to ramp up. And there will be more flight to choice going forward.

BRIAN CHEUNG: Sara, I want to ask, just what's your advice to people that are watching this that are maybe heading for the airport? I'm one of them this weekend. We know that you might have to have just a little bit more patience this weekend, given everything that we've just talked about here. I mean, are you worried about flight attendants kind of experiencing some unpleasant passengers this weekend?

SARA NELSON: Well, let's recognize that when our workspace is your travel space and when things go wrong, we are also having our lives sort of messed with, and flight attendants are having a hard time getting through to schedulers to get our routes changed, which is very frustrating to us because we want to get on that next flight and be able to actually support the passengers who are trying to get somewhere. But in terms of advice, we really encourage you, yes, of course, to be very patient. But before you leave, check. Because if something has happened last minute with your flight, the last thing you want to do is be stuck already at the airport. So check on what's happening before you go to the airport.

Pack a protein bar just in case you get stuck on the ground. Don't forget, too, the weather is still involved. Those flights are not going to take off unless it's safe. And if there are thunderstorms anything anywhere, you can get stuck on a tarmac waiting to take off, or you could be stuck in an airport where another flight has been delayed for the same reason. So do that.

Pack an empty water bottle that you can fill up in the airport just in case those concession lines are long. And bring some headphones with you and download the airline app so that you have entertainment available. And just be ready to take a long, deep sigh of relief and hope that everything goes well. I was just on six flights over the last three days, and all of them were on time. So don't expect that everything is chaos. There are some people who are having a hard time getting around, but other people are making it to their destinations just fine.

BRIAN CHEUNG: All right, do your rituals make sure your flight comes on time. Flight Attendant Association President Sara Nelson, Thanks so much for joining us, and have a great weekend. Well, as we bump out to break, just need to acknowledge some news happening in the NBA world.