Planning a trip to visit family for the holidays this year? You won’t be alone — and that makes the potential for widespread flight delays and cancellations all the more likely.
With nearly 200 million Americans vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 and the delta variant receding, many more people are feeling comfortable taking to the skies lately.
On Sunday, nearly 2.2 million people traveled through airport security checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That’s more than double the number of people who traveled through U.S. airports at the same time last year, and only slightly below the traveler levels seen in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
It’s a preview of what travel experts expect to be a rather busy holiday season for airports, especially during the pandemic. “From a demand perspective, what we’re seeing is a lot closer to what 2019 looked like for holiday travel than for 2020,” said Adit Damodaran, economist with travel booking company Hopper.
Searches for flights on Hopper have increased 105% over the past month, Damodaran said, and those searches should result in more bookings. “I would expect airports to be absolutely packed,” he said.
The surge in demand is coming at a time when airlines are still working to get back up to speed after being grounded at the height of the pandemic. As a result, many carriers are still operating with very little slack. That means bad weather or issues at a single airport can easily snowball into massive waves of delays and cancellations. Multiple airlines, including American AAL, -4.88%, Southwest LUV, -1.34% and Spirit SAVE, -1.55%, have dealt with these wide-scale disruptions in recent months.
Why airlines are so prone to major disruptions right now
When COVID-19 caused an unprecedented drop in flight bookings, many airlines responded by grounding aircraft and reducing staff.
Now that travel demand has recovered, some airlines are being caught flat-footed. Furloughs were a common route that airlines took to reduce staff sizes and maintain costs during the worst of the pandemic, but other airlines opted to offer early retirement packages to flight crews.
“Those carriers are probably seeing a bit of an effect from having scaled down more at the time than they probably would have in retrospect,” Adam Gordon, a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, said. “Even carriers that have enough staff in their pipeline are tripping up over bringing them back as quickly as they would like.”
Indeed, American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour cited staffing issues in explaining why nationwide flight cancellations occurred in October due to inclement weather in Dallas. “Our staffing begins to run tight as crew members end up out of their regular flight sequences,” he wrote in a letter, noting that the airline opted to proactively cancel “some flights” to account for the staffing shortages.
Airlines also are grappling with non-pandemic-related staffing issues that regularly make assembling flight crews a challenge. (Airlines for America, a trade group representing most major carriers, declined to comment.)
“A lot of people would have retired anyway — crew members in particular, because they have to retire at age 65,” said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline consulting firm.
On top of that, carriers are always more challenged to staff flights properly toward the end of the month — when the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays fall. The Federal Aviation Administration has limits on how many days and hours per month flight crews can work for safety reasons. Airlines do typically offer incentives to employees to encourage them to work on holidays, but that might not be enough to avoid these operational snafus.
“You may have some weather events mid-month that cause disruption and excess use of pilots’ and flight attendants’ time, which drains the pool of how much you have left at the end of the month,” Mann said.
How travelers can avoid the holiday blues
Choose your airline carefully
If a customer has a choice of airlines, they should take time to determine which offers them the greatest flexibility if things go south.
“Consider whether that airline is flying one flight a day to that destination or eight,” Gordon said. “Because the more flights that operate, the more chance there is a way of them being able to accommodate disruptions.”
Know where your plane is coming from
Research is your friend and can prepare you for dealing with the major headaches that come with flight disruptions this time of year. In many cases, the large scale cancellations that carriers have had to make were the result of issues in major hub airports or in specific parts of the country.
Some airlines, like Southwest, operate on point-to-point networks, meaning that individual planes hopscotch across the country rather than flying back and forth between two airports. A delay in one city, therefore, can have ripple effects throughout the country, if planes or crew members aren’t where they need to be.
That information is typically available on the airline’s app starting earlier in the day, or the night before in the case of early morning flights. Once you know where the flight is coming from, check the weather to see if it’ll be a factor. “The more information you have the more alternatives you may be able to generate on your own,” Mann said.
Avoid peak travel days if you can
It’s never fun to deal with long lines at airport security and the crowds of people waiting to visit grandma and grandpa. But there’s another reason to book your travel for times other than peak travel days like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. “The domino effect of a few hundred flights getting cancelled is substantial,” said Sara Rathner, travel expert at personal-finance website NerdWallet.
All the people on those cancelled flights will be scrambling for the one or two seats on flights that are still scheduled, making it less likely that you’ll actually get to your destination. That’s always the case, but these days when airlines are still operating fewer flights per day than they were pre-pandemic, it’s especially true.
If you can’t avoid a peak day, an earlier flight is better than an evening one, because you might have the ability to fly out later in the day if things go awry in the morning. And fewer connections can help to avoid complications.
Give yourself a buffer
There’s a natural inclination to book short trips around the holidays, especially for families who might not be able to get time off from work. There’s a trade-off in doing that. For instance, if you plan to fly on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a cancelled flight could mean you won’t be making it to the turkey dinner in time.
“The most impactful choice people can make is to leave extra time on both ends of their trips,” said David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter at travel website The Points Guy. “That way, even if there’s a catastrophic delay situation and you’re delayed by a day or more, you won’t miss the holiday and seeing your loved ones.”
Slotnick also recommended packing extra clothing — and if you work remotely, bringing your work materials — on the off-chance your buffer is needed.
Purchase the right travel insurance policy
In scenarios where you’re stuck away from home because of a cancelled flight, and you either need to rebook with another airline or find a hotel for the night, trip insurance can be your friend. But not all policies are created equal.
“Some policies include coverage for ‘any delay of a common carrier,’ while others will list specific causes of the delay, such as ‘mechanical failure’ or ‘strike,’” said Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer at travel insurance website Squaremouth. “If given the options, we recommend travelers select policies with the most general ‘any delay’-type language, as that gives them the biggest safety next of coverage available.”
More inclusive policies can be more expensive, but can be useful especially if the exact cause of a delay or cancellation isn’t known or if the trip is short.
Some travel booking websites, such as Hopper, have added rebooking features in cases where flights are delayed or cancelled, for an added cost. This can be another route rather than traditional travel insurance. Another option would be to book using a credit card that provides trip protection coverage.