As more Americans get vaccinated and more states lift their restrictive measures, the travel and tourism sector is already finding itself behind the curve, with employees from hotels to airport coffee shops saying they are stretched to their limit.
“Between January and today, the amount of people that are flying now is absolutely asinine, it’s crazy. I wasn’t expecting it, not yet, maybe summer,” said Dymond Blossom, a flight attendant for a regional subsidiary of American Airlines. As of March, her hours have nearly doubled, she said.
While Blossom said she is happy to see the airlines recovering, “mask policing” and the rebuttals that come with it have also increased amid the uptick, she said.
“Now we’re encountering more people, therefore there’s a bigger probability of that being a problem,” she said. “This job is not for the faint of heart.”
Major U.S. airlines, which relied heavily on the $55 billion Payroll Support Program over the last year to stay afloat, are now increasing their hiring efforts and adding more routes, heading into the summer.
“Over the past year, our crew members have continued to undergo training and are returning to work in numbers to scale up our operations and we are hiring in specific areas to address rapidly increasing demands,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue president and COO, during the company’s first quarter earnings call last week.
United Airlines announced last month that starting in June it will fly its largest schedule since before the pandemic, adding over 480 daily flights. Delta Air Lines removed its middle seat block over the weekend. Southwest Airlines is recalling hundreds of pilots and 2,700 flight attendants to return to work over the next few months. American Airlines said all flight attendants have returned to active flying status and the airline will add 300 new pilots by the end of the year.
American Airlines is even asking 200 flight attendants to “end their extended leave of absence early and return to flying by July,” spokesperson Lindsey Martin told NBC News.
But the uptick in travel demand has come with “a dramatic increase” in unruly or dangerous behavior aboard passenger airplanes, according to Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson.
Dickson extended the agency’s “zero-tolerance” policy in March, which directs “safety inspectors and attorneys to take strong enforcement action” against any disruptive or unsafe flight passengers. Consequences can range from fines to time behind bars.
Abuse against flight attendants this year has been “way off the charts” compared to the last two decades, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, told NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt this week.
“What we have seen on our planes is flight attendants being physically assaulted, pushed, choked,” she said. “We had a passenger urinate. We had a passenger spit into the mouth of a child on board.”
Companies that cater to busy fliers before they get to their gate are also feeling the heat of the travel demand increase.
Becca Vedrine, an HMSHost employee who works as a barista at a Starbucks in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said she used to work every shift alongside four coworkers before the pandemic hit. Now, it’s just one or two.
“Business is looking back to normal, but staffing — we’re being overworked and we’re underpaid,” Vedrine said. “So, everything is going back to normal except on the inside.”
HMSHost did not respond to an NBC News request for comment.
Vedrine said she now sees 300 people a day, and believes the only reason it isn’t at the pre-pandemic level of 500 is because half of her terminal is closed due to construction, she said. Despite the high volume, she said she hasn’t received much pushback from caffeine-craving customers.
At airports across the country, the Transportation Security Administration has checked in over 1 million fliers every day since the middle of last month, a pattern not seen continuously since last March. It recently experienced staffing issues at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, which, in pairing with social distancing guidelines, led to lines that stretched to the parking garage.
TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein says the agency is hiring at the airport and has outlined separate hiring goals nationwide.
“We are confident that we are prepared for the summer travel volume of passengers and we will continue to hire after summer and into the fall,” Farbstein said. “We have set an annual hiring goal of 6,000 TSA officers, which we expect will position us to meet the increasing travel demand as the country continues to recover from the pandemic into the busy November and December holiday seasons.”
Some hotels say they are running into obstacles while trying to keep up with the demand.
“Best Western Hotels & Resorts is rehiring based on the recovery of the travel industry,” said David Kong, the company’s president and CEO. “However, despite the high unemployment rate, it has been very difficult to hire for many positions in our hotels. Many industries are struggling to bring people back. The increase in unemployment benefits and relief checks has had unintended consequences.”
President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief package included a fresh round of stimulus checks for most Americans, plus the extension of special pandemic unemployment benefit programs. That means some eligible recipients receive $600 a week, or the equivalent of $16 an hour — more than most low-wage and entry level jobs pay.
But while some hotels are having no luck finding employees, other hotels hoping to catch up on months of financial pain have let workers go and are not rehiring.
Heather Benson, a former manager at a hotel in Las Vegas, was furloughed in March 2020 and officially let go from her duties in March this year.
“It’s just devastating — and the other managers are so overworked and overwhelmed,” Benson told NBC News. “I know that they need me, but they’re trying to save money by not bringing us all back… They had 1,600 check-ins on a Friday not that long ago,” she said.
Benson’s wife, Marchelle, still works at the same hotel, as a travel dispatcher, and said she recently worked 20 days straight, half of which were 12-hour days by herself.
“It’s frustrating all the way around. People are real frustrated because they’re not back to work yet, and us that are back to work are frustrated because we’re being overworked and it’s not fair,” she said.