Traveling this summer? Brace yourself for delayed — or canceled — flights, short-staffed hotels, and expensive car rentals. Here's everything you need to know:
Why are so many flights being delayed and canceled?
There are several reasons why thousands of flights have been delayed and canceled since the start of the busy summer travel season. There are still staff shortages related to the coronavirus pandemic; in early 2020, when hardly anyone was flying, many pilots took buyouts, and now carriers are having to hire and train new pilots, which takes time. Because of the staff shortage, airline carriers are cutting flights from their schedules at the same time that demand is up — air travel is almost back to its pre-pandemic levels, as many Americans want to make up for lost vacation time. "It's pretty clear that people have been cooped up for two years and they want to travel now," travel analyst Jason Rabinowitz told The Washington Post. "When I look at airline availability right now, I have never seen it so tight before — pretty much every flight throughout the system is going out 100 percent full."
Additionally, flight crews have maximum duty periods and are legally not allowed to work over that, even if they were waiting for a plane that was delayed. Sometimes, however, the reason for a delay or cancelation is as mundane as the weather, with severe thunderstorms grounding flights. "This is an extraordinarily difficult season of travel," Marc Casto, president of leisure brands in the Americas for Flight Centre Travel Group, told the Post. "It's a confluence of multiple forces all hitting at the exact same time, which has resulted in a poor experience for everybody involved."
What's behind the high prices for hotels and rental cars?
Just like with flights, there is a demand for hotels and rental cars from people itching to take a vacation. There is also a shortage of workers; the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in May, leisure and hospitality employment was down 7.9 percent compared to February 2020.
To stay afloat during the early days of the pandemic, car rental companies started selling their vehicles, and the industry lost more than 500,000 cars, or a third of their combined fleets, CNN reports. Now, they don't have large enough inventories to keep up with demand. Plus, with inflation, prices are up on everything from food to fuel, and that's being factored into hotel and car rental rates. Right now, the average rate for a hotel room is 23 percent higher than it was this time in 2021, the American Automobile Association says.
Are the airlines expecting the Fourth of July holiday weekend to be challenging?
All signs point to yes. On Wednesday — three days after the carrier canceled 224 flights due to weather and "air traffic control constraints" — Delta Air Lines announced that it will let customers rebook, for free, flights scheduled between July 1 and July 4, as long as the fare has the same origin and destination and the travel takes place by July 8. "Delta people are working around the clock to rebuild Delta's operation while making it as resilient as possible to minimize the effects of disruptions," the carrier said in a statement. "Even so, some operational challenges are expected this holiday weekend."
On Thursday, Delta pilots participated in informational pickets across the United States, including at the carrier's hub, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. They want to bring attention to their stalled contract talks, with union leader Jason Ambrosi telling NBC News, "These pilots stood up and were frontline leaders during the pandemic, flying record amounts of overtime to get our customers safely to their destinations. They have earned, earned an industry-leading contract." A spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association International said that the pilots will not walk out over the holiday weekend.
Is anything being done to address these flight delays and cancelations?
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to hit airlines where it hurts: their bottom line. On Wednesday, Sanders sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, saying that immediate action is needed to address the issue. Passengers and crew members are being left "stranded at crowded airports from one end of the country to the other, forcing them to miss weddings, funerals, and business meetings and ruining family vacations that have been planned for months in advance," Sanders said, and he reminded Buttigieg that "during the pandemic, when air travel came to a near halt, U.S. taxpayers came to the rescue and gave $54 billion to the airline industry. ... Given all of the generous taxpayer support that has been provided to the airline industry, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that passengers and crew members are treated with respect, not contempt."
Sanders asked Buttigieg to require airlines to promptly refund passengers for flights that have been delayed over an hour; fine airlines for flights that are delayed more than two hours; and fine airlines $55,000 per passenger if they cancel flights they knew could not be fully staffed. "We cannot allow airlines to increase revenue by encouraging Americans to book flights that corporate executives understand will never take off because of staffing shortages," Sanders said.
Buttigieg has met with airline leaders about the flight disruptions, and earlier this week rejected claims that the Federal Aviation Administration is actually to blame for the holdups. "The majority of cancellations and the majority of delays have nothing to do with air traffic control staffing," he told NBC Nightly News.
What can I do as a traveler this summer?
First, pack your patience. If flying, give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport — you may need to wait in longer security lines — and only check a bag if you must. When booking your tickets, try to get a seat on the first flight out for the day — it's less likely to be delayed or canceled, and you can catch up on your sleep in the air. If you have to connect, make sure you have ample time to get to your next flight; you can't afford to cut it close right now. For those headed to a major event, like a wedding or family reunion, schedule your flight for a day or two ahead, giving yourself some extra time in case there's a delay. Also, look for hotels that offer free cancelations and consider buying trip insurance.