aOn a recent Friday night, Laura Waring needed to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to San Diego to help set up her healthcare IT company conference, which was scheduled to begin next Monday.
But after her flight was repeatedly delayed and then canceled, Waring slept for about 45 minutes in a crib at Newark Airport before waking up cold and unsure of how she’d made it to California.
This was just the beginning of her problems.
And according to travel industry experts, the Waring experience likely won’t be unique among people traveling in the coming months. Over the Memorial Day weekend, there were more than 2,800 cancellations and 20,644 delays between US airlines, according to tracking service FlightAware.
Experts see this as an early indication of a turbulent summer travel season due to the lack of pilots; increased consumer demand; recent hike in fuel prices; and disagreements over which Covid-19 restrictions should remain in place.
“We’re really seeing retaliatory travel — people have had two years of pent-up demand wanting to get out and travel,” said Matthew Howe, senior director of travel intelligence at market research firm Morning Consult. “On the other hand, I think we saw that some [airlines] You may struggle to meet the demand.”
The number of airline pilots and engineers fell from 84,520 in May 2019 to 81,310 in May 2021, down nearly 4%, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The country will need more than 14,000 new pilots each year for the next decade, according to the bureau.
“The workforce shortage that preceded the pandemic has accelerated, especially for technicians and pilots, who entered the profession long ago in smaller numbers than retirees,” the regional airline association, a trade group, said in its 2021 annual report.
This shortage means that people seeking to travel this summer will likely face fewer options than they did before the pandemic, according to Michael Taylor, practice leader for travel intelligence at consumer research firm JD Power. For example, before the pandemic airlines departed every hour for major hubs such as Chicago and Atlanta. Now they will only happen every 90 minutes, he said, and planes will be busier.
Taylor said the airlines would “redeploy a larger fleet with fewer city destinations in their flight system.”
Taylor explained that the lack of flights and the lack of staff leads to less laxity in the system. While before the pandemic, an airline may have had crews at an airport on alert in the event of an unexpected event, airlines do not often because they need those staff on flights.
Then when a storm hits and the flight is delayed, there may be no alternatives for scheduled crew members, who are only allowed by the FAA to fly a certain number of hours each day.
Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the American Airlines Pilots Association, said the airline is loading pilots’ schedules “as much as possible.”
“When you create a schedule with very little buffer because you disproportionately allocate a back-up mission to pilots, it is very costly, very inefficient, and ultimately results in a less reliable operation,” a trader said.
Airlines are adapting to new challenges. Delta announced May 26 that it will cancel 100 daily flights from July 1 to August 7 around the United States and Latin America.
“More than at any time in our history, the various factors currently affecting our operations — weather and air traffic control, vendor personnel, increased Covid case rates contributing to higher-than-planned unscheduled absences in some workgroups — are driving a process in place,” Allison said. Abend, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said in the announcement: “It does not consistently meet the standards that Delta has set for the industry in recent years.”
Alicia Johnson, a 28-year-old mental health therapist, was scheduled to return to Detroit from Minneapolis after her cousin’s wedding on Memorial Day weekend when she received a notification Sunday morning that her Monday morning flight had been cancelled. She was rebooked for an hour after three hours.
“It just added pressure on us to rearrange transportation but also have back-up plans for what would happen if that also gets canceled or if overbooking is over,” said Johnson, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
She and her fiancé decided not to take the same trip with Delta to attend another wedding in July.
It wasn’t just due to cancellation. Johnson also flew in April, shortly after the federal government lifted the mask mandate for people on planes. She continued to wear her mask due to her family members suffering from autoimmune disorders. During the flight, I sensed that the Delta crew was celebrating the end of the masking requirement.
“People still want people to wear masks,” Taylor said. “You go to any airport and they have the overhead ads, ‘You have to wear a mask, look around and about half the people out.
Johnson is not the only one who has had a disappointing travel experience. JD Power reported that customer satisfaction with air travel in March 2022 was down from the same time a year earlier.
Taylor attributes that change to an increase in the number of passengers.
“It’s a great trip when you’re on a 737 and there are only 10 people on board. When there are 220 people, it’s a different experience.
She added that Johnson also saw the cost of a round-trip ticket to Minneapolis from $297 in May to $578 in July. The average round-trip ticket price in the United States in April was $585, the highest price in seven years, according to the airline’s report.
“I think with tickets going up as they are, with inflationary pressures hitting people’s budgets, people really expect airlines to perform and deliver the services they promised,” said Howe, of Morning Consult.
Waring, the executive sales coordinator at the healthcare IT company, was able to leave Newark on a United Airlines flight at 8.30am on May 21, 13 hours after it departed.
The trip was to Los Angeles instead of San Diego. Her luggage also did not make it to the flight. This meant that she not only had to drive two hours to San Diego but also had to visit Target to buy clothes. And when she finally got her bag, the handle was broken. She kept receipts of her purchases and hopes the airline will reimburse her for them.
Fortunately, Waring, 47, who lives in Bod Lake, New Jersey, said they were still able to prepare for the conference, which went well.
She still plans to fly with United in August to Florida for a family vacation.
The bad experience “certainly wouldn’t stop me from booking a flight,” Waring said. I’m just going to “make sure you have a good size that has some basics in there.”