How Airline Challenges Could Affect Summer Travel Plans

TAre you thinking of flying this summer, too? You’re not alone—and you might face some delays.

COVID-19’s restrictions being eased up, Americans can expect to travel more than any other time in six months. According to U.S. Travel Association estimates that 60% of Americans plan to go on vacation this summer. Google search related to travel has soared to levels not seen since 2019.

All indicators point to a summer travel boom.

The surge in demand will probably have negative consequences. The industry has low airfare inventory despite record high ticket prices. Many airlines have their flights booked for weeks ahead of departure. Tickets are currently at $400 per person, an increase of 28% over the weekend in 2019.

These are just a few of the many factors that will make this summer of air travel messy.

Staff and pilot shortages

“Pilot didn’t show up,” one person wrote to American Airlines on Twitter last week after their flight was canceled right before it was supposed to take off. “I had a flight canceled today because of a staffing shortage on the ramp at the destination airport,” another wrote. “That’s a first.”

Due to the pandemic, approximately 400,000 workers in American airlines have been fired or forced from work in the past two years. This void has forced airlines to scramble to find qualified staff and pilots. Some have been forced to reduce flights at the same time passengers arrive to board. There hasn’t been a shortage of trained pilots like this since the end of World War II, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

It’s a shortfall that some airlines have tried to hide.

“Airlines are starting to open up about not having enough pilots,” says Michael Taylor, J.D. Power’s travel intelligence lead. “But you can’t have a person who flew a 737 aircraft two years ago start flying tomorrow. They have to be recertified.”

Oliver Wyman Consulting projects that the shortage in pilots will exceed 12,000 by 2023 because of an aging population of pilots and strong usage of early retirements.

Alaska Airlines is particularly badly affected by the shortage. The airline has cancelled approximately 50 flights per day since May. “May will continue to be choppy,” CEO Ben Minicucci said in a video last week, where he announced the carrier would hire 150 new pilots and 1,100 flight attendants.

Pilots are expected to strike in the coming weeks for higher pay and better labor protections. This will likely continue staffing problems. Some airlines have reduced their flight schedules in response to the crisis and offered better incentives for both pilots, and flight attendants.

The Air Line Pilots Association pickedet outside of Delta Air Lines’ check-in area at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta on March 10, 2022.

Elijah Nouvelage—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Republic Airways, a regional airline proposed to reduce the number of hours required for flight training, from 1,500 down to 750, before becoming a pilot. However, major airlines resist lowering the barriers to entry for pilots because it can affect aviation safety. Some airlines including Delta have removed the requirement for pilots to hold a 4-year degree from colleges. However, there has been no significant change. TIME learned that United Airlines intends to train as many pilots as possible by 2030. In December, it launched its own flight school for pilots with minimal to no previous experience. This course is approximately one-year long.

Experts warn that flight cancellations may continue into summer, as airlines plan for increased staffing.

The unpredictable fuel price fluctuations

Airlines are likely to jack up ticket prices again if jet fuel becomes more expensive in the coming months, which industry experts warn could happen as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rages on and embargoes on oil remain in place. The average cost of jet fuel in today’s world is $7 per gallon. However, the situation is more severe for the New England and Northeast regions, which are experiencing high prices of up to $9.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has said if today’s jet fuel prices hold it will cost the airline $10 billion more than it spent in 2019.

“People are going to do what they want and pay for flights this summer,” Taylor says. “But they will complain about it a lot more because of the price hike.”

A new J.D. Power study, which Taylor worked on, that’s exactly what’s happening. In recent months overall passenger satisfaction has dropped across all lines due to increased crowds and prices.

There are more people

Over the last seven days, around 15.5 million people have gone through TSA checkpoints, up from roughly 11.8 million during the same period last year—a 24% increase. This increase in travelers means that airports could be overcrowded, increasing the likelihood of long lines and selling out.

However, these crowds may pose an issue as COVID-19 incidences are on the rise in this country. U.S. airlines have stopped requiring facial covers, so travelers with compromised immune system or children who are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 may face increased risks.

Airports haven’t been this busy since the start of the pandemic two years ago, when airlines saw record-low passengers and deep financial losses, says Brett Snyder, author of the Cranky Flier airline industry site. It might not be as good news for customers, however.

“Running an airline is like running a successful restaurant,” Taylor says. “Every night, every seat should be filled.”

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