Top Air Travel Stories From 2021

Commercial airplane flying above clouds. (Photo via Jag_cz/iStock/Getty Images)
Rich Thomaselli
by Rich Thomaselli
Last updated: 8:00 PM ET, Tue December 28, 2021

An up and Down Year in the Air

2020 was a year filled with financial losses for airlines - and all of travel, really - due to the pandemic. It was 12 months of hardship and craziness, to be sure.

Then 2021 came along and basically said to 2020, "Hold our beer."

The past year has been a rollercoaster, highlighted by an industry turnaround that happened far more quickly than expected but lowlighted by an escalation in passenger violence against crew members that, quite frankly, has gotten out of hand.

Here's a look back at 2021.

President Biden's Executive Order

It didn't take long for President Joe Biden to put his stamp on the presidency and his influence on travel, especially air travel. On his second day in office in late January, Biden signed an executive order requiring international travelers to not only have a negative COVID-19 test to enter the U.S., but to also self-quarantine upon arrival. It would be the first of many times the Administration made air travel headlines in 2021.

Violence On Airplanes

In actuality, physical violence and verbal abuse of flight attendants and crew began in 2020, coinciding with a federal mask mandate. But in 2021, passengers - perhaps emboldened by political views on personal freedoms and some who were fueled by alcohol - took it to another level. Numerous flight attendants were physically assaulted, including several that needed medical attention. The Justice Department said it would step up criminal prosecution, and the Federal Aviation Administration began levying hefty fines. But the violence was, and remains, a disturbing element of air travel.

New Airlines Take Off

It was the year of new airlines - despite the pandemic. Three new budget carriers made their debuts, including Aha!, Avelo and Breeze, the latter of which is headed by former JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman.

The Return of Air Travel

Well, this happened in a hurry. Starting with Memorial Day, and continuing through the July 4 holiday, summer, Thanksgiving and now Christmas, the pent-up demand for travel surprised nearly everyone. Thanksgiving was a major test for the airlines, and they passed it with flying colors, while the Christmas season - even with the Omicron variant hanging overhead - has also proven to be nearly back to normal.

Return of Air Travel, However, Proves Problematic

When the federal government doled out $54 billion in grants and loans to keep airlines afloat during the pandemic, carriers also tried to stem the losses by offering buyouts and early retirement to workers. That proved to be problematic when air travel returned sooner than later, and airlines were caught with a plethora of staffing shortages.

Delays and Cancellations

Airlines saw an unprecedented year of massive delays and cancellations. Southwest Airlines had not one but two separate issues of multiple days of cancellations, which ended up costing the carrier $75 million. Spirit Airlines had a similar problem, and even American Airlines was caught unprepared. Though there were several factors involved, the common denominator in each was staffing shortages that in part kept airlines from moving their crews to the right places.

Alcohol Service Under Fire

Several airlines, including Southwest, saw a pattern between onboard passenger violence and the consumption of alcohol and decided to suspend the service into 2022. But United brought it back in November with the resumption of liquor sales.

Two Airline Stalwarts Retire

A pair of well-known and well-respected airline chief executive officers announced their retirements in 2021. Southwest's Gary Kelly decided to step down effective in early 2022 after years of prosperity. And after 20 years at the helm, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker also announced his retirement.

United's Vaccine Mandate

Even before President Biden issued his edict that all federal contractors must have their employees vaccinated against COVID-19 - which included virtually every U.S. airline - United Airlines in August became the first carrier to mandate that all its workers be vaccinated.

JetBlue Launches London Flights

In August, JetBlue officially entered the transatlantic market with new, nonstop service between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and London Heathrow Airport. It was the first time the airline served a destination beyond the more than 100 cities it serves throughout the Americas.

President Biden Presses Commercial Airlines into Duty

The Biden Administration in August activated U.S. commercial airlines to assist with the evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, following complete U.S. withdrawal from the country. Six airlines were involved in 18 flights - four from United Airlines; three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; and two from Hawaiian Airlines.

DOJ Threatens American/JetBlue Alliance

The alliance agreement between American Airlines and JetBlue Airways, announced in 2020, became the subject of a Department of Justice lawsuit in September. The DOJ and six states filed suit saying that such a deal between the two carriers would eliminate competition and drive up the cost of airfares, particularly in New York and Boston. The trial is scheduled for September of 2022.

United Helps Out Cyclists

Now this was a long time coming. United Airlines decided in October to eliminate fees for travelers flying with their bicycles. The carrier joined Delta and American in stripping the fees, bringing welcoming news to the cycling community.

Holiday Incentives

Working on holidays has always meant a little extra financial remuneration, but the airlines took it a step further this year. In order to combat those staffing shortages and avoid those huge delays and cancellations, carriers began offering some employees unprecedented incentives to work the six-week holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

Boeing's 737 MAX Settlement

Airplane manufacturer Boeing Co. said in November it would compensate the families of the 157 passengers killed on Ethiopian Airlines' 737 MAX crash. The flight was one of two 737 MAX planes that crashed within months of each other in late 2018 and early 2019. The plane grounded worldwide for 20 months until finally receiving permission to fly again by the FAA in December of 2020.

Southwest Says It won't Fire Unvaccinated Workers

The Biden Administration's mandate that all federal employees and contractors must be vaccinated or face termination or unpaid leave did not go over well with some companies. In fact, at one point in October, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said he would not place unvaxxed workers on unpaid leave.

Biden Administration Lifts International Travel Restrictions

It was a day more than 18 months in the making. On November 8, President Joe Biden officially lifted the restrictions on international travelers entering the United States. The move gave a hopeful sign to airlines hoping to lure back their business and global travelers.

Omicron Hits

After apparently weathering the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, the new Omicron variant hit after first being discovered in South Africa. The U.S. responded with new travel restrictions on more than a half-dozen southern African nations and a tightening of COVID-19 entry requirements.

United Makes First Sustainable Fuel Commercial Flight

The first day of the last month of the year brought some history. United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to fly a commercial flight carrying passengers using sustainable fuel. Passengers flew from Chicago to Washington D.C. on alternative fuel.

Woke Culture Hits the Airline Industry

Arguably one of the most famous, or at least well-known, airport names in the world is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. As of December, it is no more. Clark County Commission officials voted to change the name due to the antisemitic past of the former U.S. Senator from Nevada that the airport was originally named after some seven decades ago.

Delta Takes Frequent Flier Miles From Cheapest Fares

In a surprising move, Delta Air Lines decided it will no longer award frequent flier miles to anyone purchasing Basic Economy tickets, the airline's cheapest fare. It was a big blow to many passengers who became accustomed to accumulating miles at any price point.

Top stories and biggest headlines from a crazy 12 months.

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Helping leisure selling travel agents successfully manage their at-home business.

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Agent Specialization: Group Travel

Laurence Pinckney

Laurence Pinckney

CEO of Zenbiz Travel, LLC

About Me