OLast Friday night, Laura Waring had to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to San Diego to help set up her healthcare information technology company’s conference, which was scheduled to begin the following Monday.
But after her flight was repeatedly delayed and then canceled, Waring slept on a bed at the Newark airport for about 45 minutes before waking up cold and unsure how to get to California.
That was just the beginning of her troubles.
And according to travel industry experts, Waring’s experience in the coming months probably won’t be unique among people who fly. According to the tracking service FlightAware, there were more than 2,800 cancellations and 20,644 delays at US carriers during Memorial Day weekend.
The experts see that as an early indicator of a turbulent summer travel season due to pilot shortages; increased consumer demand; a recent rise in fuel prices; and disagreements over which Covid-19 restrictions should remain in place.
“We’re really seeing revenge trips — people who have had a pent-up demand for two years and want to get out there and travel,” said Matthew Howe, senior manager of travel intelligence at Morning Consult, a market research firm. “On the other hand, I think we’ve seen some [airlines] struggling to meet demand.”
The number of airline pilots and engineers fell from 84,520 in May 2019 to 81,310 in May 2021, a drop of nearly 4%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the country will need more than 14,000 new pilots every year over the next decade, according to the agency.
“Pre-pandemic staff shortages have accelerated, particularly for technicians and pilots, who have long been employed in fewer numbers than those retiring,” the Regional Airline Association, a trade group, said in its 2021 annual report.
That shortfall means people looking to travel this summer will likely be faced with fewer options than they were before the pandemic, according to Michael Taylor, practice leader for travel information at JD Power, a consumer research firm. For example, before the pandemic, airlines had hourly departures to major hubs such as Chicago and Atlanta. Now they will only take place every 90 minutes and the planes will be busier, he said.
The airlines are “going to deploy a larger fleet with fewer city destinations in their flight system,” Taylor said.
Fewer flights and staff shortages translate into less slack in the system, Taylor explains. While before the pandemic, an airline may have had crews on standby at an airport in the event of an unexpected event, airlines don’t do that as often because they need that staff on flights.
When a storm hits and a flight is delayed, there may not be a replacement for scheduled crew members, which the Federal Aviation Administration only allows a certain number of hours per day.
Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, American Airlines’ pilots’ union, said the airline is overcharging pilots’ schedules “to the absolute maximum.”
“Building a schedule with very little buffer because you’ve assigned a disproportionate amount of reserve duties to your pilots is very expensive, very ineffective, and ultimately leads to a less reliable operation,” Tajer says.
Airlines are adapting to the new challenges. Delta announced on May 26 that it would cancel 100 daily flights around the US and Latin America from July 1 to August 7.
“More than ever in our history, the various factors currently impacting our operation — weather and air traffic control, supplier staffing, increased Covid cases contributing to higher-than-planned unplanned absences in some workgroups — are leading to an operation that satisfies not always up to the standards Delta has set for the industry in recent years,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer, in the announcement.
Alicia Johnson, a 28-year-old mental health therapist, was due to fly back to Detroit from Minneapolis after her cousin’s wedding on Memorial Day weekend when she received a message Sunday morning that her Monday morning flight had been canceled. Three hours later she was rebooked to one.
“It just added stress for us to rearrange the transportation, but also to have backup plans about what would happen if that one were canceled too or they overbooked it,” said Johnson, who lives in Ann Arbor. , Michigan resides.
She and her fiancé decided not to take the same trip with Delta for another wedding in July.
It wasn’t just because of the cancellation. Johnson also flew in April, shortly after the federal government lifted its mask mandate for people on airplanes. She continued to wear her mask because of relatives with autoimmune diseases. During the flight, she had a feeling that the Delta crew was celebrating the end of mask duty.
“People still want people to wear masks,” Taylor said. “You go to any airport and they have the announcements from above, ‘You should be wearing a mask,’ and you look around and about half the people are.”
Johnson is not alone in having a disappointing travel experience. JD Power reported that customer satisfaction with air travel had fallen in March 2022 from the same time a year earlier.
Taylor attributes the change to the increase in passenger numbers.
“It’s a great flight when you’re on a 737 and only 10 people are on it. If there are 220 people on it, it’s a different experience,” he said.
Johnson also saw the cost of her round-trip ticket to Minneapolis from $297 in May to $578 in July, she said. The average round-trip ticket price in the US in April was $585, which was the highest in seven years, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.
“I think with tickets as high as they are, with inflationary pressures hitting people’s budgets, people really expect airlines to perform and deliver the services they’ve promised,” Morning Consult’s Howe said.
Waring, an executive sales coordinator at the healthcare IT company, was able to depart Newark on a United Airlines flight at 8:30 a.m. May 21, 13 hours after she was supposed to leave.
And the flight was for Los Angeles instead of San Diego. Her luggage hadn’t made it to the flight either. That meant not only having to drive two hours to San Diego, but also visit a Target to buy clothes. And when she finally got her bag, the handle was broken. She kept the receipts for her purchases and hopes the airline will refund her.
Fortunately, they were able to prepare for the conference, which went well, said Waring, 47, who lives in Budd Lake, New Jersey.
She still plans to fly with United to Florida in August for a family vacation.
The bad experience “certainly won’t stop me from booking a flight,” Waring said. I’m just going to make sure I have “a good size carry-on bag with some essentials”.