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It’s safe to say that the air travel experience in a post-pandemic world has left something to be desired.
The summer 2022 travel season was marked by airline industry staffing shortages, flight delays, a steady barrage of rescheduled flights and flat-out cancellations. For many travelers, it became a running joke predicting whether or not their upcoming flight would actually take place as scheduled.
Making matters worse, flight prices skyrocketed. Americans paid about 32% more for airline tickets in July 2022 than one year earlier, according to Hopper.
So as the hectic winter holiday travel season approaches, what can we all expect from air travel in the months ahead and how is the industry gearing up for what is typically the busiest time of the year?
The answer to those questions is both good news and bad for travelers.
Scaled Back Flight Schedules
Even with record inflation sweeping the country and the cost of living ballooning for Americans, travel remains a priority for many people, says Gabe Saglie, senior communications manager for Travelzoo. It’s a reality that will impact the holiday travel rush.
“For many travelers, this holiday season will be a return to a more ‘normal’ travel routine after two or even three years of pandemic-era cutbacks, and that surge in demand will mean busy airports and packed planes,” explains Saglie.
The airline industry is anticipating a strong holiday season and to prepare, airlines have been recalibrating flight schedules and doing their best to reinforce staffing.
“As a way to ease possible meltdowns—the types of chaotic situations that defined the early part of the summer season—the focus has been on trimming schedules, at least through November, and ramping up hiring,” explains Saglie.
Since late summer, airlines have been revising their schedules for the holiday season as a way to curtail delays and cancelations, says Saglie. The changes will affect shorter, regional domestic flights the most. For those who happen to be traveling to smaller cities and towns, that means fewer flight options.
Increased Staffing Levels—but Shortages Continue
It’s hardly any secret that commercial pilot and general staffing shortages played a significant role in the troubles many fliers experienced this past summer. Airlines have seen a 4% decline in pilots since 2019. In response to such staffing challenges, many airlines, including JetBlue and Spirit, slashed summer schedules.
Travelzoo’s Saglie says airlines are working to address this issue in advance of the holidays.
“Airlines tell us that hiring and training have been big priorities for them as we head toward the busy holiday season,” says Saglie. “As more pilots get on their schedules, it should lessen the delays and cancellations that resulted from pilot shortages this past summer.”
“Airlines have prioritized avoiding the meltdowns we saw this summer that were wrought by staffing issues and demand that was underestimated, Saglie added.
Cancellations are always a possibility when travel volume surges as it does during the holidays, Saglie added, but in most cases it will likely be the product of weather, which becomes a greater threat during the winter months.
While Saglie’s optimism is positive news, it’s important to remember that the industry is far from out of the woods with regard to labor shortages. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that 18,000 pilots would need to be hired every year for the next decade in order to resolve the commercial pilot shortage issues plaguing the industry.
Not only is there much hiring still to be done, but the training that must take place for new airline employees doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes a while for airlines to hire and train, especially in demanding positions such as an airline pilot,” said Antoine Wilson, owner of A.D. Elite Travels.
“I feel it will be a repeat of earlier this year with flight cancellations and delays,” Wilson added.
Jen Moyse, vice president of product for TripIt from SAP Concur, offers similar insights, predicting that for the 2022 holiday season, airlines will still be grappling with staffing issues.
“Nearly all [airlines] are facing pilot shortages,” says Moyse. “This can contribute to the disruptions we’re seeing, especially during the holiday season when airline and airport employees are also likely trying to take time off, further exacerbating the situation.”
Learning From Past Mistakes and Challenges
There’s no getting around the fact that summer travel wasn’t pretty for many airline passengers.
A recent survey of TripIt users found that 57% of those who traveled by plane in the past six months experienced a disruption of some type. Flight delays and cancellations were the top two culprits, according to the survey. Of those who experienced disruptions, most were impacted by a flight delay of an hour or more (82%), and many had a flight canceled (38%).
These issues were in many ways a product of travel suddenly roaring back to life after a protracted COVID-19 downturn, suggests Moyse. She predicts the holiday season ahead will bring more of the same types of hiccups.
Still, Moyse and others underscored the fact that airlines have been busy working to apply lessons from those summer challenges.
“After a season marked by disruptions—be it canceled flights, extreme weather, or high gas prices—the travel industry is doing its best to learn from the past few months and prepare for the busy season ahead,” said Moyse.
Julie Kyse, Expedia Group’s vice president for global air partnerships, offers similar insights.
“The entire industry has had to learn some hard lessons from the summer, but everyone in the value chain has been working to improve the experience, including us,” said Kyse.
For Expedia, that effort has included streamlining the user experience when booking flights on their platform.
“As part of our overall approach to how we better service this, we are [applying] our front-end capabilities and technology skills to make it easier for travelers to use air credits as if it were another form of currency, or an online gift card,” explained Kyse. “This functionality allows logged-in travelers with available air credits to apply those credits to their flight purchase in the core shopping path, reducing the need for agent assistance in applying air credits to a purchase. We’re also making it much easier for travelers to locate their credits on our sites, and redeem them more easily.”
Be Prepared for Crowds
Some of the challenges that lie ahead are beyond the control of the airlines. Travel is back and that means holiday crowds.
Just about every TripIt user said they’re planning a trip this year (99%). Nearly one in three are planning a Christmas and New Year’s trip and one in four said they’ll travel for Thanksgiving.
“That’s more than what we heard last year. When we asked the same question last fall, only 27% of respondents said they’d travel for the winter holidays and just 19% for Thanksgiving,” says Moyse.
With the challenges of summer air travel top of mind for countless holiday fliers, many say they plan to arrive at the airport earlier than in the past (52%), while others intend to be more selective with the travel providers they use (45%) and nearly as many (44%) say they will be well prepared for delays and come bearing snacks and reading materials.
“The best advice I can give is to get to the airport early, be patient, expect it to be busy, and enjoy the trip,” said Expedia’s Kyse.