Are you planning a trip to visit family on vacation this year? You won't be alone – and that makes the potential for widespread flight delays and cancellations all the more likely.
With nearly 200 million Americans vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 and the Delta variant, many more people are feeling comfortable taking to the skies lately.
According to the Transportation Security Administration, nearly 2.2 million people passed through airport security on Sunday. That's more than double the number of people who traveled through U.S. airports at the same time last year, and only marginally among those in 2019 prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's a preview of what travel experts expect from a fairly busy airport holiday season, especially during the pandemic. "From a demand perspective, what we're seeing is much closer to what 2019 was like for vacation travel than 2020," said Adit Damodaran, an economist at travel booking company Hopper.
Searches for flights on Hopper rose 105% in the last month, Damodaran said, and those searches should drive more bookings. "I would expect airports to be absolutely overcrowded," he said.
The surge in demand comes at a time when airlines are still working to get back on the cutting edge after the stalemate at the height of the pandemic. As a result, many transport companies still operate with very little leeway. This means that bad weather or problems at a single airport can easily lead to massive delays and cancellations. Several airlines including American
have grappled with these far-reaching disruptions over the past few months.
Why airlines are so prone to major disruptions right now
When COVID-19 caused an unprecedented drop in flight bookings, many airlines responded by hiring planes and downsizing.
Now that travel demand has recovered, some airlines are being hit flat. Vacations were a common way airlines chose to cut headcount and keep costs up during the worst part of the pandemic, but other airlines chose to offer flight crews early retirement packages.
"These airlines are likely seeing a small effect of being scaled down more at the time than they probably would have been retrospectively," said Adam Gordon, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group. "Even freight forwarders who have enough staff in their pipeline stumble upon getting them back as soon as they want."
In fact, American Airlines chief operating officer David Seymour cited staffing issues to explain why there were nationwide flight cancellations in October due to bad weather in Dallas. "Our staff is becoming scarce as the crew members leave their regular flight sequences," he wrote in a letter, noting that the airline had decided to proactively cancel "some flights" to make up for the staff shortage.
Airlines also face non-pandemic staffing issues, which regularly make flight crew composition a challenge. (Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most of the major airlines, declined to comment.)
"Many would have retired anyway – especially crew members because they have to retire at 65," says Robert Mann, President of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline consultancy.
In addition, towards the end of the month – when Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays fall – the airlines are increasingly challenged to fill flights properly. For security reasons, the Federal Aviation Administration has restrictions on how many days and hours per month flight crews can work. Airlines usually provide incentives to their employees to encourage them to work on holidays, but that may not be enough to avoid these operational issues.
"There may be some weather events occurring in the middle of the month causing disruption and excessive use of time by pilots and flight attendants, emptying the pool of the amount left at the end of the month," said Mann.
How travelers can avoid the vacation blues
Choose your airline carefully
If a customer has a choice between airlines, they should take the time to figure out which one gives them the most flexibility when heading south.
"Think about whether this airline flies one or eight flights a day to this destination," said Gordon. "Because the more flights are carried out, the greater the chance that you can compensate for disruptions."
Know where your plane is coming from
Research is your friend and can prepare you for the big headaches that come with flight disruptions at this time of year. In many cases, the major cancellations airlines had to make were the result of problems at major hub airports or in certain parts of the country.
Some airlines, like Southwest, operate on point-to-point networks, which means individual planes fly across the country instead of flying back and forth between two airports. A delay in one city can therefore have repercussions across the country if planes or crew members are not where they are supposed to be.
This information is usually available in the airline's app from an earlier day in the day or the night before for early morning flights. Once you know where the flight is coming from, check the weather to see if it's a factor. "The more information you have, the more alternatives you can possibly generate yourself," said Mann.
Avoid busy travel days if you can
It is never fun to deal with long lines at airport security and the crowds waiting to visit Grandma and Grandpa. But there is another reason to book your trip for times other than the main travel days, such as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. "The knock-on effect of a few hundred flights being canceled is significant," said Sara Rathner, travel expert at personal finance website NerdWallet.
Everyone on those canceled flights will battle for a seat or two on the flights still scheduled, making it less likely that you will actually reach your destination. That is always the case, but this is especially true now that airlines are still operating fewer flights per day than they did before the pandemic.
If you can't avoid a peak day, an early flight is better than an evening flight as you may be able to leave later in the day if things go wrong in the morning. And fewer connections can help prevent complications.
Give yourself a buffer
There is a natural inclination to book short trips around the holidays, especially for families who may not be able to take time off from work. There is a compromise in doing that. For example, if you want to fly on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a canceled flight could mean you won't make it in time for turkey dinner.
"The most powerful decision people can make is to plan extra time at both ends of their travels," said David Slotnick, airline senior reporter for travel website The Points Guy. "That way, even if there is a catastrophic delay and you are late by a day or more, you won't miss the vacation and the reunion with loved ones."
Slotnick also recommended packing extra clothing – and if you're working remotely, bringing your study supplies – in case your buffer is needed.
Get the right travel insurance
In scenarios where you are not home due to a canceled flight and either need to rebook with another airline or find a hotel for the night, travel insurance can be your friend. But not all guidelines are created equal.
"Some policies include coverage for 'any shared carrier delay' while others list specific causes of the delay, such as 'mechanical failure' or 'strike'," said Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer at Squaremouth travel insurance website. "With the options in place, we encourage travelers to choose policies with the most general language of the 'any delay' type, as this will give them the greatest level of security that will be available next."
Included services can be more expensive, but can be particularly useful if the exact cause of a delay or cancellation is unknown or if the trip is short.
Some travel booking websites such as Hopper offer rebooking functions at an additional cost in the event that flights are delayed or canceled. This can be a different route than traditional travel insurance. Another option would be to book with a credit card that offers travel protection.