The peak summer travel period is approaching, and that’s exciting for many. The world is finally starting to get back to (the new) normal, travel and coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, and people are ready to celebrate like the summer of 2019.
Unfortunately, this is where the similarities between summer 2019 and summer 2022 will end, particularly on the travel front, and more specifically on the airline front. And while I don’t have the pleasure of writing this, I feel it has to be said…
Expect airline operations to be in chaos all summer
My Twitter timeline seems to be a mix of people sharing where they can still find flight deals for this summer, and people sharing their own horror stories about what it’s like at airports right now. We’ve seen airlines and airports struggle to deal with the increased demand for passengers in recent months, and this is about to get worse, with summer school holidays increasingly starting.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone will have a very horrible flying experience in the next couple of months. However, you should not be shocked at all if things do not go as planned, you should rather expect it.
Honestly, I don’t bat an eyelid anymore when I see a picture of a half-mile-long security line or a customer service desk with hundreds of people waiting in a queue with only two agents working. This is just the reality of travel in 2022.
I am not suggesting that every experience will be horrific. Quite the opposite, I’m sure some people will go through CLEAR and TSA Pre-Check, fly non-stop on schedule, and have their checked bag arrive in 20 minutes. However, I think people are lying to themselves if they think that the greater increase in demand that we are about to see will lead to smoother operations.
How should you prepare for air travel this summer
I’m not saying you should be happy about it, or that airlines should be out of danger, but you should expect air travel to be a mess and plan accordingly, since there is only so much you can control.
Among other things:
- I’ve never recommended this before, but for many airports you shouldn’t just get there an hour or two earlier, but maybe three or four hours instead; This is especially true if you do not have access to priority services
- Airlines are making many changes to the schedule, so don’t expect that your current itinerary will continue; If you are on a cruise or have a commitment that you can’t miss, don’t fly there on the day, or even just a day earlier, but fly there two or three days in advance
- Leave really long connections, so that you increase your chances of actually taking your trips; If you miss the connection, it may take a long time for another rebookable flight to be available
- If you are checking bags, you will especially need to leave a very long connection, due to the lack of baggage handlers in many places; Otherwise you can find yourself arriving at your destination without your bag
- Travel on off-peak days if you can (in the middle of the week), and it’s best to travel earlier in the day rather than later in the day, as things tend to get more chaotic as the day progresses
Like I said, none of this means you should be happy about it, or that airlines and airports shouldn’t be held responsible (although more on that later). But instead, if you’re going to post a video on Twitter with 500 people in a row, it should be with the caption “FYI, there’s a row of 500 people waiting for two customer service agents, which isn’t surprising”, not “OMFG can” You think there are 500 people waiting for two customer service agents, f* and $ [insert airline name]I will never fly with them again.”
Be especially nice to airline employees
I want to devote a brief section to this specifically. If you’re traveling this summer, make sure you’re kind to the frontline airline industry workers. They are not the problem, they are the solution. And if you think your travel experience is stressful for the few hours you spend in an airport or on a plane, imagine what it’s like for them every day now.
The fact that airports and airlines are understaffed is not the fault of those who show up for work. On the contrary, they suffer the most from it.
Are the airlines really to blame for these issues?
I certainly don’t want to give airlines (and airports) a pass for operational matters, particularly for being too optimistic about their schedule. In an effort to maximize profits, airlines schedule flights based on the best hiring scenario, rather than relying on the worst case scenario. This is inappropriate.
However, aren’t these issues somewhat true across our entire economy? The aviation industry is one of the most complex in the world, even under the best of conditions. There are a lot of external forces that affect the ability of airlines to operate (as we see in Amsterdam with a shortage of security staff).
But even the bigger picture than that, can anyone tell me what industry is reliably serving at the moment? Airlines have always been an easy punching bag, which consumers usually like like cable companies.
I feel right now that you can’t get any service reliably. Sure, your flight might be delayed by a few hours, but at least it’s not six months late, unlike a lot of other things people buy now. This doesn’t excuse the airlines for their lack of performance, but rather to say I’m not sure they’re doing a particularly bad job, given everything that’s going on.
My last experience flying around Europe
In the US, we often view airlines’ operational problems as mostly a domestic problem, but the truth is that things are at least as bad, if not worse, in Europe. So if you’re planning to travel to or through Europe this summer, expect it to be tough.
Just to give an example of what I’ve seen in the last couple of days in Europe, and not even summer school vacation is here yet:
- Yesterday morning Frankfurt Airport was busier than I’ve ever seen; Luckily I didn’t have to clear security or passport control
- Our checked bags did not arrive despite having a very reasonable contact time, and as you would expect, the missing baggage line was very long (we are in Europe for over a month which is why we checked bags)
- Yesterday at Dusseldorf Airport I saw the longest security line I’ve ever seen
I definitely don’t see anything improving in the coming weeks…
I am happy not to travel in July and August
As I mentioned above, I’m in Europe for June, because I thought it would somewhat help me weather the summer travel rush (admittedly many Americans already have school breaks, but Europeans don’t). It’s really too brutal for me here.
I don’t have any real travel planned for July or August, and my plan is to keep it that way. I’m happy to let the rest of the world travel their hearts, and I’ll be comfortable/sweating in Florida, hopefully everyone will leave the state.
Other aspects of travel wouldn’t be much better
While I keep this post mostly airline specific, I think it’s also worth noting that I expect not many aspects of travel to be as big as pre-pandemic this summer. At the very least, expect this to be the summer where you pay more and get less.
Across the board, we see staffing issues in the hotel and tourism sector, so expect worse service, fewer things opening, higher prices, and longer lines for just about everything.
I know a lot of people are excited to travel this summer, and that’s great. I don’t mean at all to get rid of that. I just want to help people set realistic expectations. The fact that airports and airlines will have such a small number of employees is not really under our control at this point.
But what is under our control is how we plan and how we respond when things go wrong. Go ahead and totally travel, but don’t expect it to be like 2019. And be nice to the people who show up for work, because they’re not the problem.
What do you expect air travel to look like this summer? Anyone have a more optimistic outlook?