TAre you flying this summer? You are not alone – and you may experience some delays.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease, more Americans are expected to travel in the next six months than at any time since the start of the pandemic. An estimated 60% of the nation is planning a vacation during the summer, according to the American Travel Association, and Google searches related to travel are up, reaching even higher levels than they were in 2019.
All signs point to a summer travel boom.
But the rise in pent-up demand for flights will likely have consequences. Although standard ticket prices are rising worldwide, the stock of airline tickets is low across the entire industry. Many airlines find their flights fully booked weeks before take off, and with more than 3 million people expected to fly in the US on Memorial Day weekend, the average ticket price is around $400, up 28% over the same weekend. The week in 2019.
Here are some of the factors that collide to lead to a chaotic summer of air travel.
Shortage of pilots and staff
“The pilot didn’t show up,” one person wrote to American Airlines on Twitter last week after their flight was canceled just before takeoff. Another wrote, “A flight canceled today due to lack of staff on the ramp at the destination airport.” “This is the first.”
The United States is facing the worst pilot and staff crisis in recent memory as nearly 400,000 airline workers have been laid off or furloughed in the past two years due to the pandemic. The void left airlines scrambling to hire pilots and trained staff, many of whom had to cut flights just as passengers were ready to board. According to the Airline Pilots Association, there has been no shortage of trained pilots like this since the end of World War II.
It’s a deficiency that some airlines have tried to hide.
“Airlines are starting to open up about not having enough pilots,” says Michael Taylor, JD Power’s head of travel intelligence. “But someone who flew a 737 two years ago cannot start flying tomorrow. They need to be re-certified.”
Consulting firm Oliver Wyman predicts that there will be a pilot shortage exceeding 12,000 by 2023 due to an aging pilot population and strong use of early retirement.
Alaska Airlines has been hit particularly hard by the shortage, canceling about 50 flights per day this month. “May will continue to be volatile,” CEO Ben Minicucci said in a video last week, announcing that the carrier would hire 150 new pilots and 1,100 flight attendants.
Employment issues are likely to continue as some pilots go on strike in order to improve wages and protect workers. The crisis has prompted some airlines to reduce their schedules and come up with better incentives for pilots and flight attendants.
Members of the Airline Pilots Association sit outside the Delta Air Lines check-in lobby at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, on March 10, 2022.
Elia Novell-Bloomberg / Getty Images
One regional airline, Republic Airways, has proposed reducing the number of hours required to fly from 1,500 to 750 before becoming a pilot. But most major airlines are reluctant to lower the barrier to entry for pilots, as it could affect flight safety. Several airlines, including Delta, recently stopped requiring a four-year college degree for pilots, but no other major changes were made. United Airlines told TIME it plans to train up to 5,000 pilots by 2030, launching its own flight school in December designed only for applicants with little or no piloting experience. The full course takes about a year.
However, experts say the cancellation of flights could continue into the summer as airlines outline their plan to hire more pilots and staff.
Unpredictability of fuel prices
Airlines are likely to raise ticket prices again if jet fuel becomes more expensive in the coming months, which industry experts have warned is likely to happen as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies and the oil embargo continues. Jet fuel currently costs an average of about $7 a gallon, although the problem is particularly serious in New England and parts of the Northeast, where jet fuel costs close to $9.
Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO, said continuing jet fuel prices today would cost the airline $10 billion more than it spent in 2019.
“People will do whatever they want and pay for flights this summer,” Taylor says. “But they will complain a lot about it because of the high prices.”
According to a new study by J.D. Power, which Taylor worked on, that’s exactly what’s going on. Overall passenger satisfaction has declined in recent months, due in large part to increased prices and crowds.
Over the past seven days, about 15.5 million people passed through TSA checkpoints, up from about 11.8 million during the same period last year — an increase of 24%. The sudden rise in travel means airports will be crowded again, with potentially long queues and sold-out flights.
But those crowds could pose a problem as COVID-19 cases resurface across the country. Face coverings are no longer required by US airlines and transit systems, which means travelers with compromised immune systems or children not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations may be at increased risk.
Airports haven’t been this busy since the pandemic began two years ago, when airlines saw record numbers of passengers and huge financial losses, says Brett Snyder, author of the airline industry website Cranky Flier. This may be a good thing for the travel industry, but not as much for customers this summer.
“Running an airline is like running a successful restaurant,” Taylor says. “Every night, every seat must be taken.”
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