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Travelers likely to face chaos, crowds and construction this holiday season at DIA

United: 88% of pre-pandemic flights return
Denver International Airport
Posted at 9:51 PM, Nov 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-16 10:28:59-05

DENVER — Let's face it, if you're flying this Thanksgiving, you're going to need an enormous amount of patience.

Crowds and chaos are a near certainty at Denver International Airport where it’s been a bumpy ride recently with long lines at security, construction delays in the main terminal and massive waves of flight cancellations earlier this fall.

“This was absolutely very turbulent,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock at a recent ribbon cutting marking the completion of Phase 1 of the Great Hall Project, nearly two years behind schedule.

“Our performance over the last few months, yeah, it hasn’t been up to what we want,” Southwest Airlines spokesman Paul Cullen said.

There have even been verbal and physical assaults on airline employees.

“Many of our flight attendants have a palpable fear about coming to work right now simply because they don't know what's going to happen to them physically or verbally,” said Paul Hartshorn, Jr., national communications chair for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

It’s all contributing to a lot of anxiety as we head into the busy holiday travel season.

RELATED: 7 tips if you’re heading to DIA during the holiday season

“I think there’s going to be a learning curve,” said Taylor Cochran, a traveler.

“We switched off the entire travel industry overnight and then travel came back as soon as we had a vaccine,” said Skyler McKinley, regional spokesman for AAA.

McKinley says because of surging demand on top of airport and airline labor shortages, delays are likely.

“There could be cancellations, there could be delays, there might be long security lines,” McKinley said. “So, our advice if you want to avoid this as much as you can is to be flexible.”

That means getting to the airport early, building in an extra day or two for travel if possible and being patient with airline employees and other travelers.

Southwest says it has scaled back its number of flights through the end of the year so it doesn’t have another massive meltdown like it did with thousands of cancellations in early October.

“Hoping to better balance the activity with the number of employees we’ve got,” Cullen said.

They’ll be hiring an additional 8,000 people next year. For now, they’re hoping fewer flights will result in fewer delays.

As for DIA’s largest carrier, United Airlines, it's expecting travel to be back to 88% of the volume it did pre-pandemic in November 2019.

Sunday, Nov. 28 will be United’s busiest travel day since before the pandemic as it’s expecting around 450,000 customers. Houston, Chicago, Denver and New York/Newark will be United’s busiest airports. Each will have more than 350 departing flights per day on average during the Thanksgiving travel period.

United and Southwest have also opened new ticketing lobbies at DIA, allowing travelers to tag and drop bags without ever speaking to a ticketing agent.

“Clearly, opening this lobby in time for holidays was a huge milestone for us,” said Matt Miller, vice president of the Denver hub for United Airlines

United’s new ticketing lobby, as well as Southwest’s, should spread out travelers, allowing for a more free-flow of foot traffic through the main terminal.

“Segmenting our customers, adding new fancy features,” Miller said.

As for airline employees, all of this combined with masks and other mandates certainly hasn’t been easy on the ones left standing.

“Look, we as flight attendants, we get it, it's uncomfortable,” Hartshorn said about wearing masks on flights. “We have to wear [a mask] and work up there as well. It's not something we love either.”

Hartshorn also says people have shorter fuses lately.

“One of the issues with which we've been dealing, not even counting the physical assaults, is the issue of intoxication on board the aircraft,” Hartshorn said. “We have seen many concessions throughout airports across the country start to sell to-go alcohol and to the passenger that translates to being able to bring it onto the aircraft. We've seen a major increase in intoxication reports, which obviously lead to verbal and physical assaults.”

McKinley says passengers should give employees a break.

“Don’t take those frustrations out on the gate agent,” McKinley said.

There are some travel hacks that could make flying a whole lot smoother, like signing up for TSA Precheck, which could be approved before Christmas.

“It’s made my life significantly easier,” said Anna Peshock, a traveler. “No taking off shoes, no taking laptops out, no dealing with toiletries.”

McKinley also reminded travelers to head to. the airport early and plan for long lines.

“Worst case, you’re at the airport early,” he said.

The root cause of all the headaches is a pandemic that made everyone re-order their priorities.

DIA could try throwing money at the problem, but then again, others are doing that, too. The airport could pitch it as a great place to work, but when there's a union strike at the gates, that can be a hard sell.

Jack Buffington, program director for supply chain management at the University of Denver, notes there's also the fact that working at DIA means a twice-daily drive to and from the middle of nowhere.

“If you can get a job working at Chik-Fil-A right down the street, why would you drive all the way to DIA and go through security?” Buffington said. “So, this gets into being more creative in how they offer these jobs.”

Experts say the labor shortage is going to take at least another year to sort out. Until then, travelers have to make do with long waits, strained service fewer flight options.

“If you haven’t already booked your travel for Thanksgiving, good luck,” said Lowell Valencia-Miller, teaching assistant professor in the Daniel’s College of Business at DU. “Seats are going to be limited and prices are going to be high. If you can be flexible and travel before or after, you're going to find prices being much, much lower than they would during that traditional holiday period of Thanksgiving.”

Valencia-Miller says Christmas does come with one big advantage over Thanksgiving. People tend to travel for a longer period of time, spreading out the crowds and therefore allowing for more flexibility in booking.

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