Airlines and tourist destinations are expecting huge crowds this summer as travel restrictions ease and pandemic fatigue overcomes the persistent fear of contracting COVID-19 while travelling.
Many forecasters believe that the number of travelers will match or even exceed levels in the old days prior to the pandemic. However, airlines have thousands of fewer employees than in 2019, and this has at times contributed to widespread flight cancellations.
People who only book for summer travel are suffering from sticker shock.
Domestic airfares for the summer average more than $400 a round trip, 24% higher than this time in 2019, before the pandemic, and 45% higher than last year, according to travel data company Huber.
“The time to get cheap summer flights was probably three or four months ago,” says Scott Keys, who runs Scott’s Cheap Flights website.
Internationally, prices are also up from 2019, but only by 10%. Prices to Europe are about 5% cheaper than they were before the pandemic — $868 for the average round-trip flight, according to Huber. Mr Keyes said Europe is the best travel deal out there.
Steve Nelson of Mansfield, Texas stood in line this week at a security checkpoint at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ready to board a flight to Nice, France, with plans to attend the Formula 1 race in Monaco.
“I decided it was time to work on my bucket list,” Mr. Nelson said. “I didn’t think about Monaco until this year.”
Although many countries have relaxed travel rules, there are still restrictions in place that add to the inconvenience factor. Notably, the United States still requires a negative COVID-19 test within one day of travel to the country.
“We just realized that a couple of days before coming here. We kind of panicked to find a place to test,” said Johnny Dawe, a software engineer from Bath, England, who was in Dallas for a conference. And you have to worry about contracting the virus.”
Online spending on US flights fell in April after a hot month of March, but is still 23% higher than in spring 2019, mostly due to higher fares, according to Adobe Analytics.
Airlines blame the higher prices on jet fuel, which nearly doubled in price compared to 2019. However, it’s more than that. The number of flights has not returned to pre-pandemic levels despite the high demand for travel.
“We have more travelers looking to book fewer seats, and the cost of each of those seats will be higher for airlines this summer because of jet fuel,” says Huber economist Hayley Berg.
When travelers reach their destination, they will be greeted with hotel rates that are about a third higher than last year. Hotels fill up faster, too. Hotel companies attribute the higher prices to increased costs of supplies as well as workers in a tight labor market.
Rental cars were very expensive and hard to find last summer, but that appears to have diminished as rental companies rebuild their fleets. The average price nationwide is currently about $70 a day, according to Huber.
Pricing and vehicle availability will be very variable, said Jonathan Weinberg, founder of a car rental shopping site called AutoSlash. It won’t be as bad as last summer, but vehicle prices will still be “well above average, if you can even find one,” in Hawaii, Alaska and nearby destinations like national parks.
Even if you drive your own car, it will still be very expensive. The national average for regular gasoline was $4.60 a gallon Thursday — more than $6 in California. These prices make some people consider staying at home.
“Don’t really get used to $6 fuel,” San Diego’s Juliette Ripley said, paying $46.38 to put 7.1 gallons in her Honda Civic. The single mom of two has no summer vacation plans other than the occasional trip to a nearby beach.
However, for those intent on traveling, the question is whether airlines, airports, hotels and other travel companies will be able to handle it.
On average, more than 2.1 million people a day board planes in the US, about 90% of 2019 levels and a number that is sure to grow into the hundreds of thousands a day by July.
The US Transportation Security Administration has hired nearly 1,000 checkpoint workers who can move from one airport to another, depending on where they are most needed.
“We’re as prepared as possible,” says TSA President David Pekosky.
Airlines that paid their staff to quit smoking when travel collapsed in 2020, are now scrambling to hire enough pilots, flight attendants and other staff. The four largest US airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — together had nearly 36,000 employees at the start of 2022 than they had before the pandemic, down nearly 10%, despite heavy hiring that began last year.
Pilots are particularly in short supply at smaller regional airlines that operate nearly half of all US flights under names such as American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.
Airlines are shrinking summer schedules to avoid overburdening their staff and canceling flights at the last minute. This week, Delta cut about 100 flights per day, or 2%, of its July schedule, and over 150 flights per day on average, or 3%, in August. Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue have previously reduced summer cruises.
Cancellations are not limited to the United States. In the UK, EasyJet and British Airways canceled several flights this spring due to staff shortages.
Air travel within Europe is expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels this summer, although visitors from outside the region are likely to drop 30% from 2019, according to a new report from the European Travel Commission. The group does not expect international travel to return to normal until 2025.
The Russian war in Ukraine does not appear to be hurting bookings in most of Europe, according to travel experts, but it will reduce the number of Russian and Ukrainian travelers, whose favorite destinations include Cyprus, Montenegro, Latvia, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania. Committee said. Russian tourists tend to be more spenders, so their absence will hurt the tourism economies of those destinations.
Also largely missing: Chinese tourists, the world’s largest travel spender, still largely constrained by their government’s “zero COVID” strategy. Some European destinations have reported that the number of Chinese tourists has fallen by more than 90% from 2019.
This story was reported by the Associated Press. Kelvin Chan in London and Christopher Webber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.