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Mayhem for airline passengers and crew as ‘hot vax summer’ turns into ‘hot mess’

A “hot vax summer” is turning into more of a “hot mess” for airlines coping with behind-the-scenes operational issues.

Spirit Airlines canceled hundreds more flights Wednesday as the airline grapples with an IT outage, bad weather, worker shortages and peak-summer demand, a company spokesman told NBC News.

By 11 a.m., Spirit had canceled 49 percent of its flights, according to airline tracker site FlightAware, a total of 341 flights. It’s the fourth consecutive day the carrier has had widespread operational difficulties.

In an emailed statement, company spokesman Erik Hofmeyer cited “overlapping operational challenges including weather, system outages and staffing shortages” for the “proactive cancellations.”

An IT outage, the second in two days, took out the company’s worker-scheduling system Tuesday, preventing management from accessing schedules or making crew changes, according to a statement from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union. Hofmeyer confirmed this was one of the airline’s operational difficulties.

Customers took their complaints to social media. Videos show hundreds of Spirit Airlines passengers stranded in airports in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas and a pile of unclaimed luggage roped off in Orlando, Florida.

Flight attendants said they have been sleeping in airports “due to the company not providing hotel accommodations in a timely manner,” union representatives reported.

“Thanks for cancelling my flight and then providing a $50 voucher as if that takes care of this craziness you have put us through,” one flyer tweeted.

“shoutout to @United for coming thru when @SpiritAirlines decided to cancel my flight an hour before takeoff and offer NOTHING to help me get another flight,” another tweeted. “i swear i will walk barefoot on broken glass from coast to coast before ever booking with Spirit again.”

Over 2.2 million passengers flew Sunday, three times the number a year ago, according to checkpoint data from the Transportation Security Administration.

Airlines took aggressive moves to cut overhead when the pandemic hit and sharply curtailed all but essential travel, but experts say they overshot the mark.

“Part of the key to airlines generating cash has been for airlines to ‘wax optimistic,’ talk their book by aggressively publishing expanded schedules, flights and capacity, and selling tickets long in advance,” said Bob Mann, industry analyst with R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation sector consulting firm, in an email. “Actually having to provide the transportation has in a few percent of cases (but for many flights and many, many customers) become unrealistic with resources actually available in the moment.”

“Some airlines now have several days’ worth of interrupted passengers vying for the few empty seats on peak period schedules, which will be uncomfortable for airlines and passengers to resolve,” he added.

All of this comes after the airline industry received $48 billion in payroll support from coronavirus relief legislation.

American Airlines also experienced hundreds of cancellations and delays Sunday and Monday as “heavy rain, strong winds, lightning, microbursts and hail” hit the airline’s Dallas-Fort Worth hub in Texas, the carrier’s largest, spokesman Curtis Blessing said in an email. By Wednesday the cancellations had fallen to just 3 percent, according to FlightAware.

One factor exacerbating problems is the issue of booking hotels for crew during layovers, American Airlines pilots and flight attendant unions said in a grievance filed with the airline last week.

“We have Flight Attendants sleeping in airports and outside of baggage claim due to the company not providing hotel accommodations in a timely manner,” said Julie Hedrick, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants labor union, in a statement.

American Airlines crews said that behind the scenes the airline has cut costs and can’t handle the demand.

“They furloughed way too many pilots and gave out too many leaves to flight attendants and pilots,” said one American Airlines crew member, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal from management. “They reinstated way too many flights without realizing and underestimating their staffing.”

Crews are reluctant to pick up some flights, despite extra pay being offered, because of the issues booking hotels, the American crew member said. They said this stems from outsourcing hotel operations to a third-party provider.

“This is a short cut for the Company to save money while not guaranteeing [joint collective bargaining agreement] compliant hotels for our crews,” the pilots union said in 2019 statement preceding a test run of the system.

“Taking care of our crew members while they are away from home is a priority for American,” Blessing said. “We are looking into the concerns raised by APA and APFA,” the spokesman said, referring to the pilots and flight attendants unions.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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