Summer air travel has been trying, to put it mildly. Hellacious, many travelers would say.
About 55,000 flights have been canceled in the US since the Friday before Memorial Day, according to data from flight tracking site FlightAware, and nearly a quarter of US flights have been delayed this summer.
A “huge problem with staffing shortages” has plagued air travel this season and all of 2022 so far, said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and a spokesperson for FlightAware.
Bangs is inclined to give the airlines the benefit of the doubt in their efforts to ramp up pre-pandemic flight schedules with 2022 staffing challenges.
“I think they truly thought they would have enough employees return, and hire enough new ones, to meet the demand, but as we’ve all seen, they did not,” Bangs said.
Weather and air traffic controller staffing issues have added to the summer disruptions.
But some industry experts were cautiously optimistic about air travel this Labor Day holiday weekend, with predictions for a smoother fall and some better fares for travel in September and October.
Hopes for Labor Day weekend
Scott Keyes, the founder of flight deals and travel advice site Scott’s Cheap Flights, told CNN Travel recently that he expected less chaos over Labor Day.
“Looking back on the summer, you’ve had a couple of big holiday travel periods. You had Memorial Day when air travel went terribly. … And then you had July Fourth weekend, when there was minimal travel disruption,” Keyes said.
He predicted that Labor Day weekend would be closer to July Fourth. He anticipated fewer air travelers than Memorial Day, translating to less strain on the system and lower chances of a domino effect if weather or staffing were less than ideal.
According to travel app Hopper, 12.6 million passengers were scheduled to fly from US airports over the holiday weekend. Hopper predicted that Thursday and Friday would be the busiest days, with more crowds on Monday as travelers head home.
Thursday’s air traffic was relatively smooth. About 300 flights were canceled – about 1% of flights, according to FlightAware data. At this summer’s cancellation peaks, more than 6% of flights were canceled.
By Friday afternoon, about 150 flights had been canceled.
The US Department of Transportation has posted a new online dashboard where passengers can find comparative information on what each of the large US airlines provides to passengers when delays or cancellations are caused by factors within the airline’s control.
Major US carriers posted updated policies this week in response to calls from the DOT for more transparency. Here are customer commitments from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest (pdf).
‘Optimal’ travel heading into fall
Bangs said airlines pared down their summer schedules by about 15%, which she said is one of the main reasons the numbers of delays and cancellations haven’t been higher.
By about this time in the summer of 2019, there were a little over 50,000 flight cancellations – or about 1.7% of flights. About 18% of flights were delayed that summer. This summer those figures are topping 55,000 cancellations – or about 2.2% of flights, with about 23% delayed.
Deeper schedule reductions are already in play for fall, plus demand normally dips as kids return to school, Bangs said.
She said more than 52,000 flights have been dropped from US carriers’ fall schedules, including more than 30,000 American Airlines flights.
“Travel should be optimal during September through October, as demand drops so there is not the same level of stress on the heavy airline schedules we saw over the summer,” Bangs said.
And there’s reason for people to cheer right now regarding prices.
Experts at Hopper were recently seeing US domestic airfare down 37% for travel in September and October compared to peak summer airfare.
And it’s worth monitoring and pouncing on attractive holiday fares as well. Airfare “will rise very fast as we head toward Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Hayley Berg, Hopper’s lead economist.
Bangs also noted drops in price by one third for many city pairings in September and October.
“With decreased seat capacity scheduled for fall, people considering traveling during September and October and even into early November should buy those tickets now while they are discounted,” she said.
Bangs expects holiday fares to remain lower through September and possibly into October before going up.
What about holiday travel later this year?
Bangs said the airlines will only be fully prepared for the 2022 Thanksgiving and Christmas season “when they get their employee staffing levels back to or even beyond 2019 levels.”
She also said she expects the circulation of Covid variants, plus seasonal viruses like the flu, to affect employee absenteeism this fall, noting that illness hit the airlines very hard during the 2021 Christmas season and into January.
“With the pared back schedule and ramp-up to increase staffing, the airlines look better positioned than last year in the 2021 Thanksgiving and holiday travel season,” Bangs said.
Weather, of course, is a wild card. Last Thanksgiving went smoothly “partly because the weather was very cooperative across the contiguous 48 states.”
Shaping the air travel outlook
Addressing the United States’ air travel woes is very much a work in progress.
In addition to its pressure on airlines to provide more transparency around passenger rights, the DOT has proposed new rules that would strengthen protections for airline passengers. That proposal is open for public comment.
“I understand that you’re never going to have zero cancellations. There is always going to be a storm somewhere, a surprise somewhere, an issue somewhere,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Kate Bolduan recently.
“But we need a stronger system. And we’re expecting airlines that collect revenue by selling tickets to be prepared to service the tickets they sell.”
The US pilot shortage is not going away anytime soon, Bangs said.
“It may seem less problematic during the fall months as demand drops, weather improves, and there are less flights out there overall. But new pilots can only be created on a long timeline,” she said.
And while less visible to the public, mechanics and technicians are also in short supply, Bangs said.
Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has acknowledged that the Federal Aviation Administration also has staffing issues to address, although he still puts the majority of the recent air travel disruptions on airlines.
“We have seen that particularly in the New York area and the Florida air space there have been staffing challenges for air traffic control – mostly because of the hole that the pandemic ripped in the training pipeline,” he said.
More strategies to come out ahead
Here are some tips on navigating the skies now and in the weeks and months ahead while we hope and wait for smoother travels:
Take the earliest flight possible: “The earlier you book your flight, the better the odds it will go smoothly because … weather tends to be better in the morning than the afternoon,” Keyes said. “But also because you don’t have the risk of domino-effect cancellations.”
Mimic savvy business travelers: “They’ve got TSA pre-check. They’ve got the airline apps downloaded onto their phone,” Bangs said. The FlightAware app also helps keep travelers alerted to flight changes.
Opt for nonstops: Bangs and Keyes suggested booking nonstop over connecting flights anytime that’s possible. It might be worth the extra cost if there is any.
Don’t check a bag: “If your flight does get delayed or you do need to get rescheduled or miss a connection, it’s going to be a lot easier to do if they don’t also have to find your bag in the belly of a plane,” Keyes said.
Ask for whatever you can get: The airlines’ revised policies (see links above) are aiming to make what you’re entitled to if your flight is disrupted clearer.
You can also request other accommodation such as a free flight voucher or a miles deposit to your frequent flier account, Bangs said.
“See what you can get,” and “always be polite.”
Top image: Travelers line up to enter a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International Airport on July 1, 2022. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)