Canceled flights, rising airfares, rental car shortages, record gas prices, and rising hotel prices. Welcome to the summer of travel hell.
Airlines said they were prepared to avoid the service problems that plagued much of the industry last year. But between Friday and Monday, US airlines canceled 2,653 flights, or nearly 3% of their collective schedules, according to tracking service FlightAware. That’s more than they canceled for the same holiday weekend in the previous three years combined.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, US airlines canceled just 1.2% of their scheduled flights, despite having 6,600 more flights on schedule.
Experts said passengers are right to be nervous that they will see more of the same for the rest of the summer.
“This does not bode well for the summer travel season, as we expect it to repeat itself over the summer months as more people fly,” Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen, said in a note to clients on Tuesday. “This was an opportunity for the airlines to demonstrate that last summer’s delays would not be repeated this summer, and yet they were not.”
Airlines have significantly fewer employees, especially pilots, than before the pandemic. They received $54 billion in taxpayer aid during the height of the health crisis to avoid involuntary layoffs, but most airlines offered buyouts and early retirement packages to cut staff and save money as air traffic ground to a halt. But it takes years to get certified for pilots and some other airline employees.
Airlines therefore operate with little margin for error when affected by bad weather, air traffic control issues or employee calls. sick, which is what they said happened this weekend.
“More than at any time in our history, the various factors currently impacting our operation – weather and air traffic control, supplier staffing, increased Covid case rates contributing to higher than planned unscheduled absences in some workgroups — are resulting in an operation that is consistently not up to the standards that Delta has set for the industry in recent years,” Delta’s chief customer experience officer, Allison Ausband, said in an online post.
But airline critics say management shouldn’t have been surprised: They knew they didn’t have the margin for error they needed. After service problems throughout 2021, including during the New Year’s holiday, airlines should have anticipated these problems, said Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, American Airlines’ pilot union.
“When you test the airline’s operating model, that’s when you see the same results,” Tajer said. With flights already booked to capacity, “one flight that gets canceled not only causes a cascading effect, it causes a tidal wave of problems. It’s déjà vu all over again,” Tajer added.
With planes as full as ever, airlines may take longer to find passengers booked on canceled flights another seat to reach your destination, Tajer said. Call centers are also understaffed and overwhelmed by demand, especially when things go wrong like they did this weekend.
“You can wait more hours on the phone to rebook a flight than the time the flight will take you,” he said.
Staff shortages mean that US airlines are still unable to offer all the flights needed to meet demand. US domestic flight capacity in June, July and August this year is 5% below what it was in those months of 2019, according to Cirium, an aviation analytics firm.
But passengers, especially vacationers, are eager to travel again this summer. Numerous airlines have reported record numbers of customers booking flights at the start of summer this year.
“There is a mismatch between supply and demand,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flight, a travel booking site. “Your hopes of getting cheap flights for the summer are slim.”
That combination of record demand and limited seat supply means much higher fares. The Consumer Price Index, the government’s reading of inflation, shows that rates in April were up 33% from a year ago and up 10.6% from April 2019.
The situation is likely worse for leisure travelers than those numbers suggest because business and international travel are not back to pre-pandemic levels. Since those passengers pay higher fares than more price-sensitive domestic travelers, going on vacation is much more expensive than it used to be.
And it’s not just the airfares that are more expensive.
A shortage of available vehicles pushed April rental car prices up 70% compared to April 2019. Hotels and other accommodation were up 20% in April from a year ago and up 10.6% with compared to April 2019. All those price hikes are likely to accelerate even more during the busy summer travel months.
And of course, gas prices are at a record high, which could be pushing more travelers to fly instead of drive on some trips.
Experts believe that price pressures will begin to recede in the fall, but not before.
“The big increase in demand, I think we’ll probably sell it out this summer,” said Hayley Berg, chief economist at Hopper, another travel booking site. “That and the normal drop in demand that we see in September and October will probably mean lower rates.”
But she said it’s a good idea to book travel for the New Year’s holiday season if you already know your plans. It is likely that the same dynamic of strong demand and lower supply will then be repeated.