Future Tense

Why Air Travel Is So Difficult Right Now

A display board shows canceled flights at the airport.
Airlines are delaying and canceling flights due to bad weather and staff shortage. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

During the pandemic, lots of Americans thought longingly about all of the travel they were missing. But when they show up to the airport for their first flight since early 2020, many are finding delayed and canceled flights. If you type in “flight delayed” in the Twitter search bar, there will be new posts almost every minute from people complaining about missing connecting flightswork events, and weddings.

Delays and cancellations this summer have become a common problem for the whole industry. According to the tracking service Flightaware.com, Southwest Airlines delayed 40 percent and canceled 3 percent of its flights in June. American Airlines delayed 34 percent and canceled 3 percent. Those numbers have increased since before the pandemic: According to U.S. Department of Transportation, on average airlines delayed 27 percent of flights in June 2019, and canceled 2 percent. Main reasons why companies are struggling and let down passengers now are the lack of staffing and severe weather. Thunderstorms caused disruptions at least at airports of Atlanta, Minneapolis and Detroit, the heat affected flights from and to Las Vegas, and the smoke from wildfires in California, Denver and Idaho forced companies to cancel and delay flights at Denver airport.

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My friend Gladys told me about her terrible air travel experience recently. On July 11, she was returning to Phoenix after a weekend getaway in Los Angeles. Her Frontier flight was scheduled for about 5 p.m. First, it was delayed by one hour. Then, after an hour of waiting, the passengers received another email: The flight was canceled. “There was nobody from Frontier to ask questions. The desk in front of the gate was empty”, Gladys told me. “One of the passengers told me that two weeks ago her Frontier flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix also was canceled, and instead she had to drive her family car for six hours. And now it happened to her again.” When finally, two Frontier employees showed up in front of the stressed crowd, they explained that the reason for the cancellation was the heat. The plane for the flight couldn’t take off from Las Vegas because the temperature had reached 117 degrees. Gladys ended up getting a refund from Frontier for her $50 flight and taking a (more expensive) Greyhound bus.

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Weather often creates air-travel headaches in the summer, but this time they are exacerbated by the pandemic. In June, American Airlines announced that it would proactively cut 1 percent of its July flights (about 1,000 flights). “The first few weeks of June have brought unprecedented weather to our largest hubs, heavily impacting our operation and causing delays, canceled flights and disruptions to crew member schedules and our customers’ plans. … That, combined with the labor shortages some of our vendors are contending with and the incredibly quick ramp up of customer demand, has led us to build in additional resilience and certainty to our operation by adjusting a fraction of our scheduled flying through mid-July,” a spokesperson told CNN. One problem: Because of the pandemic, many employees, including 1,600 American Airlines pilots, had been put on a leave of absence. To get back to work, pilots need to pass retraining, which takes time. In case of storms, pilots can reach the maximum of hours they are allowed to work per day, and companies don’t have enough reserves to replace them.

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The industry is short on other employees, too. Stephanie Richardson complained on Facebook that her Southwest flight was delayed on July 9 because it lacked flight attendants. Another traveler, Iva Yates, pointed out the deficit of customer service staff. “JetBlue really needs to hire more employees. I’ve been on hold for almost two hours to talk about my delayed flight and missed connection,” she wrote on Twitter.

Several months ago, these risks were the price travelers paid with getting cheap tickets. But now flying isn’t even cheap. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, airfares rose 3 percent in June after increasing 7 percent in May and 10 percent in April. More and more people are ready to return to the skies after getting vaccinated, so airlines capitalize on the increased travel demand. Zach Griff, a travel analyst at The Points Guy, says that it wasn’t hard to find $29 transcontinental flights between New York and Los Angeles or $19 tickets for shorter regional hops throughout much of the pandemic, but now it “might feel like winning the lottery.” “After more than a year of fare sales, the airlines are laser-focused on boosting their yields, which ultimately boils down to increased ticket prices,” explains Zach Griff.

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Tickets will keep getting more expensive, according to forecasts of specialists. A travel search and analytics company Hopper expects that round-trip domestic flights will cost on average $283 for the period of June-August, which is 35 percent more than summer 2020, when it was $209. However, it is still 4 percent less than two years ago. To save money on traveling, Griff suggests postponing vacation until fall. “[M]any popular destinations will be less crowded, and it’ll be cheaper to get there,” he says.

For those who still plan a trip in summer and haven’t booked tickets yet, analysts recommend avoiding popular places like Bozeman, Montana, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming (closest airports to the Yellowstone National Park). It might also be helpful to check out two of the newest budget airlines in the U.S. “Both Avelo Airlines and Breeze Airways inaugurated service earlier this year, with fares starting as low as $39,” Griff suggests.

Once you buy tickets, you will need to be patient and prepared for possible surprises at the airport. Download the app of the airline you travel with, as it is the fastest way to learn about schedule changes, and pack snacks with you (many airport restaurants are still closed) in case the flight gets delayed. If the worst thing happens and the flight gets canceled, it is important to know that you are entitled to a refund, even if the ticket is nonrefundable.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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