Let’s not kid ourselves: if last week was any indicator, summer air travel is going to be even rougher than we thought. After a weekend of flight delays and cancellations, you’d be wise to start thinking about Plan B and Plan C when it comes to summer travel.
A Grim Summer Of Air Travel Is Already Upon Us
I was speaking to a friend on Saturday, who shared of his daughter’s travails. She was at the airport in Dallas (DFW) trying to reaching Detroit (DTW). On Thursday, her flight was cancelled. She was rebooked for Friday. On Friday, her flight was cancelled. She was rebooked for Saturday. On Saturday, well…you guessed it. She finally made it on Sunday, only three days late.
I spent much of the week on the phone with airlines dealing with Award Expert clients who have faced delays and cancellations. It has been excruciatingly difficult to get people rebooked. For example, a client wast traveling from Pittsburgh (PIT) to Washington (IAD) to Zagreb (ZAG) on United Airlines to Athens and then connecting on Aegean to to Zagreb.
His inbound flight was delayed by an hour due to Air Traffic Control and then there was no ground staff to guide his aircraft in. As a result, he missed his connecting flight and called me for rebooking options.
Should have been easy enough, right? We’re talking about Washington Dulles, a major transatlantic hub. And when you hit irregular operations like that, you only need space on the flight, not award space. But every single flight was booked solid. Austrian was booked. All Lufthansa flights were booked. Amazingly, every United transatlantic flight departing that day and the following day were zeroed out: totally sold (and indeed, quite oversold).
I managed to turn lemons into lemonade by getting him a more direct routing via Frankfurt, but it was a nail-biter. I had to waitlist him for United’s late Frankfurt flight and hope for no-shows on a flight that was oversold. Thankfully, he was one of three standbys to make the flight, with over 30 left behind.
Others have not been so fortunate. One client abandoned her trip after a series of delays meant she would not make it to her meeting.
A Rough Weekend Of Travel
According to date from FlightAware, yesterday was just a mess for U.S. carriers:
- Delta Air Lines: 250 cancellations, 702 delays
- American Airlines: 96 cancellations, 892 delays
- United Airlines: 92 cancellations, 432 delays
- Southwest: 29 cancelations, 1105 delays
Folks, this won’t get much better unless airlines dramatically scale back their schedules in advance. That would push prices even higher, but would hopefully alleviate some of the unbelievably poor performance we’ve observed not just over the weekend, but over the last several weeks.
Airlines are trying desperately to hire more people in virtually every department. But in a tight labor market, this has proven a formidable challenge.
What Is Causing These Flight Delays And Cancellations?
Airlines are quick to blame weather when flight delays and cancellations occur, but the true culprit is not the weather but that airlines have left no room for error in their operations. Like a rope stretched too thin, eventually it snaps under pressure.
Carriers may not have been able to fire workers during the pandemic thanks to taxpayer-funded payroll support, but that did not stop airlines from offering voluntary separation packages that led to thousands of early retirements or career changes.
When demand came rushing back, carriers found themselves not ready. Pilots were not trained due to aircraft fleet changes during the pandemic, which proved a huge stumbling block early on, but there are shortages across the industry in virtually every role. When employees call in sick, there may not be a replacement for them. That leads to flight delays and cancellations.
Thus, one storm can cripple the entire system. But don’t blame the storm.
How Can You Prepare For The Inevitable Delays And Cancellations?
The best advice I can give you is to be flexible. Yet I know that doesn’t help many who are on tight schedules due to limited vacation time.
The second best advice I can give you is to have back-up options booked. Yes, hold space on other carriers in case your flight is cancelled. Yet I know that doesn’t help many who don’t want to spend the miles or money on this, which is quite an investment this summer.
So what can you do? I’ve continued to be impressed, overall, with Twitter response times versus call centers. Exercise that option immediately, not as as an option of last resort.
Second, try to make the life of the gate agent or reservation agent easier by offering an alternative. As you wait to speak to an agent, research options and try to have something ready to propose. It will save you time and make it easier for the agent to get you rebooked and on the way.
Don’t Take Out Your Anger On Airline Staff
Finally, I cannot help but to mention that the front-line worker is not responsible for your delay or cancellation. Feel free to write a scathing note to the CEO blaming corporate greed, but don’t take out your anger on the gate agent or flight attendant. They are simply trying to do their job as best they can and believe me, they hate delays more than you do.
It is already shaping up to be a brutal summer of air travel. I’ve never seen airlines so crowded and flights so full…we are in uncharted waters. I don’t see any relief in sight for the delays and cancellations so many of us have experienced over the preceding weeks. All we can do is be as flexible and patient as possible, which does not solve the problem but can prepare us to take the bad news better when it (inevitably) happens.