All Along the Watchtower:
Airline Jokers and Thieves
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2021 -- It's the most wonderful time of the year. You are undoubtedly hearing about jingle bells, red-nosed reindeers, rocking around Christmas trees, dashing through snow, walks in winter wonderlands and chestnuts roasting on open fires.

Me? I'm playing All Along the Watchtower a lot. Beware when I reference Dylan songs in this column. It rarely makes for holly jolly reading.

My current Watchtower obsession centers around jokers and thieves. It's an occupational hazard when you write about airlines. Joker-and-thief references do come naturally. But the hour's getting late, so let's stop talkin' falsely and get to it.

Airlines deserve full marks for running a nearly flawless Thanksgiving holiday season. The flights ran, passengers moved and delays and cancellations were shockingly minimal. Some of it was sheer, blind luck--the weather was almost flawless nationwide--but some of it was the carriers pulling out all the real and metaphoric stops: large cash bonuses and other never-before-seen inducements to get employees to pick up extra shifts.

The airlines might not be as lucky for the end-of-the-year holiday season--and they certainly won't have as many panic buttons to hit. United and Delta alone expect a total of about 16 million flyers between now and January 3. They and the other carriers predict upwards of 90% of 2019's record holiday volume and they hope to handle it with much smaller staffs, many exhausted from helping the carriers through Thanksgiving. Worse, many of those overworked and frazzled employees will be up against both their monthly and annual federal work-time limits. They may not be available to work even if airlines offer to stuff their stockings with a duplex and checks. And what are the odds that the weather will be as calm and bright as the Thanksgiving period?

Of course, the airlines aren't telling you any of this. That would be giving you a way out of here ...

Maybe you're not traveling this holiday season, but I bet you're thinking about booking some spring and summer flying. My advice: Don't. Airline schedules are lies. And I know this is true because the airlines say they're a lie.

"If this recovery pushes off, we will not fly the schedule we've published," explains Delta President Glen Hauenstein.

I know you don't know much about Hauenstein, but trust me: No one knows routes and schedules better than Glen. If he tells you not to trust what airlines have planned next year, you'd better believe him.

There's also another consideration: Airlines have proven they cannot be trusted with our fare dollars. Hence the joker-and-thief references I mentioned earlier.

When they cancelled tens of thousands of flights last year, most issued "travel credits" rather than cash refunds. Many flyers had to resort to sicking their credit card provider on the airlines. Others still have not been made whole. In fact, Air Canada was heavily fined by the U.S. Department of Transportation because it so pugnaciously refused refunds.

The airlines have shown you what they are. Believe them. Don't give them your money now for a flight they promise to fly on Tuesday. (Yes, I know that neither Maya Angelou nor Wimpy are holiday themes, but not everything you need to know is in a Christmas carol.)

Depending on how you calculate, taxpayers gave the airlines somewhere between $50 and $80 billion in bailouts during the pandemic. The very specific purpose of the gift-giving: Airlines were required to keep their schedules intact and keep employees ready and able to work. They did neither. They slashed schedules and dropped dozens of cities from their route maps. Worse, however, they didn't use cash to keep employees at the ready. They bought out thousands, laid off many thousands more. Even now, the carriers are well below pre-pandemic staffing levels. That has caused a year of service meltdowns and burnouts, double-digit-hour telephone hold times and massive traveler inconvenience.

The airlines' explanation for all this? We didn't give them enough money. Seriously. That's the claim. Bailouts only covered "55.5% of payroll costs," airline lobbyist Nicholas Calio wrote earlier this month to the House of Representatives. "The carriers had to take significant measures to preserve liquidity." Bailouts, he continued, "were not sufficient to ensure solvency, let alone maintain plentiful air service to customers."

Some airline C-suiters showed up at a Senate hearing yesterday and basically repeated the same crap that their stooge Calio wrote to the House. But then they added a twist: The in-flight mask mandate is stupid.

I agree with them. We shouldn't have a mask mandate anymore. But the reason we have one is because the airlines have furiously lobbied behind the scenes to stop a vaccine mandate for domestic flights.

"I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment. It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting," said Gary Kelly, outgoing boss of Southwest Airlines. "I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be," added Doug Parker, the retiring chief at American Airlines.

Then wind began to howl.

"Some of these CEOs have the emotional intelligence of a doorknob," raged Peter Hotez, both an MD and a Ph.D. and one of the go-to television superstars of this pandemic. "Why say this now, when we have [Omicron,] the most transmissible variant of all accelerating?"

Airline executives are huge cowards, of course, so the minute the winds kicked up, they backpedaled. "We support the federal mask mandate. Full stop," Parker said today in a hurriedly issued statement claiming he was somehow misquoted or taken out of context. Meanwhile, Gary Kelly hid behind the skirt of Sara Nelson, boss of the flight attendant union and a ferocious advocate for masks. "After the hearing, [Kelly] came over and said that he was absolutely with me on the masks," she said today on a cable-news network.

You'll forgive me if I say that I hope all their grandmas get run over by a reindeer. Airline bosses truly disgust me. I know that sentiment isn't particularly in keeping with the holiday spirit. But grandma getting run over by a reindeer was in a Christmas song, so I figure I'm covered.

The rest of you? I wish you an insanely Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Glad tidings to you and your kin. I hope you get all the figgy pudding in the world. I don't even know if you can bring figgy pudding through security--actually, I'm not sure I know what figgy pudding is--but it is included in an appropriate holiday song and I fervently wish it for you.

An update on Friday, December 17: Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly has tested positive for Coronavirus. He was double-vaccinated and boosted. Southwest reports he is resting at home. Other airline executives who testified with him on Wednesday so far have tested negative.