After her bachelorette getaway in Austin, Texas, last weekend, Corey Bradley was getting ready to return to New York City when she got an alert from JetBlue announcing her flight was canceled. She visited the carrier’s website to rebook, but got an error message. When she called customer service, a recorded voice told her she would have to wait—for six hours.
“The flight was shorter than that,” Bradley said.
The 31-year-old physician scrambled to find a same-day ticket, but balked at the $1,800 fare. She ended up using her sister’s hotel voucher to stay another night, and forked over $450 for a trip home July 19, the next day. Bradley said she still doesn’t know if she’ll recoup the cost of her canceled flight from JetBlue.
If you’re planning a vacation during the traditional summer high season, Bradley’s nightmare could be yours. Thousands of passengers have come face-to-face with similar troubles as they took to the skies after a year or more of staying close to home. For a whole host of reasons, August could be even worse.
Capacity constraints at some airlines, labor shortages all across the hospitality industry mixed with surging demand and unprecedented weather conditions are weighing on summer holiday plans. Add to that the coronavirus delta variant and its disastrous spread across the globe and Americans are in for a frustrating time.
Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Group Inc. scrubbed around 3% of their flights in the first six days of July, while more than 33% were delayed, aviation data firm FlightAware found. The industry’s annual average in 2019 hovered around 1.8% for cancellations and 18.7% for delays, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
“Those fits and starts make the summer travel season a little more difficult,” Bloomberg Intelligence senior airline analyst George Ferguson said. “It’s not a terrible experience, but it’s not a beautiful experience.”
Many in the U.S. might just take a deep breath and try to get away anyway, given the sheer number of weddings, vacations, and family reunions COVID-19 has thwarted. Data from the Transportation Security Administration shows crowds at airport security checkpoints have steadily climbed this year, with over 2.2 million people going through on July 18 alone, a figure almost fit for normal times.
Planes were 88.8% full on average in the seven days ending July 18, compared with 89.8% at the same time in 2019, according to industry group Airlines for America. However, maintenance required on aircraft that had been parked during the pandemic meant some carriers didn’t have enough planes to meet demand early in the surge.
In addition, unprecedented heat, wildfires, and storms have pummeled huge swaths of the country, making flying more unpredictable. Derek Dombrowski, a spokesperson for JetBlue, said weather has been the primary cause of operational issues, and a spokesperson for Southwest, Brian Parrish, also attributed recent delays and cancellations to the elements. On July 19, smoke from massive fires in the West delayed arrivals at Denver International Airport, the country’s fifth-busiest airfield.
New York-resident Sophie Vigeland and her boyfriend, Griffin Donnelly, traveled to Athens in early July, also visiting Santorini’s whitewashed villages and Rome’s storied Forum. They were set to return on a Sunday, but United Airlines canceled their flight, and they could only get seats for two days later, she said.
That meant spending an additional $1,000 to cover the extra hotel nights, meals, and COVID-19 tests, given the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirement that all air passengers entering the U.S. present results no older than 72 hours.
While Vigeland said she feels lucky to have traveled, she was frustrated after having received no assurance from United that she would be made whole given the added expenses. In an emailed statement, United spokesperson Leigh Schramm said the flight was canceled due to severe weather at her destination, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, a factor outside of the carrier’s power. Accommodations are provided in most cases for customers who face controllable delays, the company added.
Still, the delay meant added financial stress. “We saved up for the vacation,” Vigeland said. But “we planned for 10 days—not 13.”
Meanwhile, a worker shortfall tied to the pandemic is adding to traveler woes. The airline industry employed 12.6% fewer people in May compared with 2019, according to the latest U.S. government figures. In June, American Airlines canceled 950 flights in the first two weeks of July, citing poor weather conditions and a labor shortage, saying that in some cases delays due to storms exhausted its group of reserve pilots.
Sarah Jantz, a spokesperson for the carrier, said July 19 that the changes amounted to less than 1% of flights and that the completion rate for trips had improved.
Airlines are working to retrain pilots who’d fallen behind on their certifications while planes were grounded, and have been calling back flight attendants on voluntary leave. But many of their contractors are having a hard time recruiting, according to Laura Moran, a spokesperson at the Service Employees International Union, which represents airport staff in charge of, among other things, cleaning, security and baggage.
For Moran, it comes down to pay. workers such as cabin cleaners and wheelchair agents often make around $12 an hour and don’t always have benefits, according to an SEIU 2016 survey. Moran said rates for many remain around those levels, though workers at airports including San Francisco International and New York’s John F. Kennedy have received pay bumps.
“All of these little frustrations aren’t because workers don’t want to work,” said Moran, the communications director for a campaign to organize airport staff. “People want to work when they’re fairly compensated.”
Then there’s the ongoing coronavirus threat. In a Deloitte LLP survey published in May, 95% of travelers ranked fare prices as their priority when booking flights, but 91% also said they picked a carrier based on the safety protocols. Covid concerns are driving people to choose nonstop flights over those with layovers, as well as to seek more flexibility with trips, said Ramya Murali, a principal at the firm.
Unlike last summer, when the South and West were being hammered by the second U.S. infection wave, virus worries are probably not enough to make vacationers tear up their plans, according to Cowen Inc. senior research analyst Helane Becker. However, they could prompt a larger-than-usual decline in travel after the Labor Day Holiday on Sept. 6, she said.
Moreover, with the delta variant dominating what’s now the start of a fifth infection wave, those who have yet to make plans for next month may think twice, depending on what the coming weeks bring.
Bradley already made her decision, but it wasn’t because of the variant. She and her husband-to-be, Michael Murn, are getting married in September and were thinking about flying somewhere this summer. But after her bachelorette debacle, they’ll probably just take a road-trip to New Jersey.
Even if they hit some traffic, she said, “we don’t have to worry about this sort of chaos.”
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