The peak summer travel period is right around the corner, and that’s exciting for many. The world is finally starting to return to (a new) normal, travel and coronavirus restrictions are being eased, and people are ready to party like it’s the summer of 2019.
Unfortunately that’s where the similarities between the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2022 will end, especially on the travel front, and more specifically on the airline front. And while it brings me no joy to write this, I feel like it needs to be said…
In this post:
Expect airline operations to be a mess all summer
My Twitter timeline seems to be a combination of people sharing where they can still find flight deals for this summer, and people sharing their horror stories of what it’s like at airports right now. We’ve seen airlines and airports struggle to cope with increased passenger demand in recent months, and that’s about to get even worse, as summer school holidays increasingly start.
I’m not meaning to suggest that everyone will have an absolutely horrible flying experience in the next couple of months. However, you absolutely shouldn’t be shocked if things don’t go as planned, and you should even expect that.
Frankly I don’t even bat an eyelid anymore when I see a picture of a half-mile long security line or a customer service desk that has hundreds of people waiting in line with just a couple of agents working. That’s just the reality of travel in 2022.
I’m not suggesting that every single experience is going to be terrible. Quite to the contrary, I’m sure some people will breeze through CLEAR and TSA Pre-Check, fly nonstop on schedule, and their checked bag will arrive within 20 minutes. However, I think people are lying to themselves if they think that the even bigger increase in demand we’re about to see will lead to smoother operations.
How you should prepare for air travel this summer
I’m not saying you should be happy about it, or that airlines should be off the hook for it, but you should expect air travel to be a mess and plan accordingly, since there’s only so much you can control.
Among other things:
- I’ve never recommended this before, but for many airports you shouldn’t just get there one or two hours early, but maybe three or four hours early instead; that’s especially true if you don’t have access to priority services
- Airlines are doing a ton of schedule changes, so don’t expect that your current itinerary will stick; if you’re taking a cruise or have a commitment you can’t miss, don’t fly there the day of, or even just a day early, but fly there two or three days early
- Leave really long connections, so that you maximize your chances of actually making your flights; if you miss your connection, it might be a long time until there’s another available flight to be rebooked on
- If you’re checking bags you’ll especially want to leave a very long connection, given the shortage of baggage handlers in so many places; otherwise you could find yourself making it to your destination without your bag
- Fly on off-peak days if you can (midweek), and ideally fly earlier in the day rather than later in the day, since stuff tends to get messier as the day progresses
Like I said, none of this is to say that you should be happy about it, or that airlines and airports shouldn’t be held accountable (though more on that later). But rather if you’re going to post a video on Twitter with 500 people in a line, it should be with the caption “FYI here’s a line of 500 people waiting for two customer service agents, not surprising,” and not “OMFG can you believe there are 500 people waiting for two customer service agents, f*&$ [insert airline name], I’m never flying with them again.”
Be especially nice to airline staff
I want to dedicate a brief section to this specifically. If you are traveling this summer, make sure you’re nice to the frontline airline industry workers. They’re not the problem, they’re the solution. And if you think your travel experience is stressful for the few hours you spend at an airport or on a plane, imagine what it’s like for them every day now.
The fact that airports and airlines are understaffed is very much not the fault of those who are showing up to work. Quite to the contrary, they’re the ones suffering most from that.
Are airlines really to blame for these issues?
I certainly don’t want to give airlines (and airports) a hall pass for operational issues, and in particular for being too optimistic with their scheduling. In an effort to maximize profits, airlines are scheduling flights based on the best case scenario of staffing, rather than based on the worst case scenario. That’s not cool.
That being said, aren’t these issues kind of true across our entire economy? The airline industry is one of the most complex industries in the world, even under the best of circumstances. There are so many outside forces that impact airlines’ ability to operate (as we’re seeing in Amsterdam with the lack of security staff).
But even bigger picture than that, could anyone tell me what industry is delivering reliably right now? Airlines are always an easy punching bag, since consumers ordinarily like them about as much as cable companies.
I feel like at the moment you can’t get any service reliably. Sure, your flight may be delayed by a few hours, but at least it’s not delayed by six months, unlike a lot of other things that people are purchasing right now. That’s not to excuse airlines for their lack of performance, but rather to say that I’m not sure they’re doing an especially bad job, given all that’s going on.
My recent experience flying around Europe
In the United States we often view airline operational issues as being mostly a domestic issue, but the reality is that things are at least as bad in Europe, if not worse. So if you’re planning to travel to or through Europe this summer, expect it to be rough.
Just to give an example of what I’ve seen the past couple of days in Europe, and it’s not even the summer school holiday here yet:
- Yesterday morning Frankfurt Airport was busier than I’ve ever seen before; fortunately I didn’t have to clear security or passport control
- Our checked bags didn’t make it despite having a very reasonable connection time, and as you’d expect, the lost baggage line was very long (we’re in Europe for over a month, which is why we have checked bags)
- At Düsseldorf Airport yesterday I saw the longest security line I’ve probably ever seen
I certainly don’t see things getting any better in the coming weeks…
I’m happy not to travel in July & August
As I mentioned above, I’m in Europe for June, since I figured it would help me somewhat beat the summer travel rush (admittedly many Americans already have school breaks, but Europeans don’t). It’s already too wild for me here.
I don’t have any real travel planned for July or August, and my plan is to keep it that way. I’m happy to let the rest of the world travel to their hearts’ content, and I’ll just be chilling/sweating in Florida, hoping everyone leaves the state.
Other aspects of travel won’t be much better
While I’m keeping this post mostly airline specific, I think it’s worth also mentioning that I’d expect many aspects of travel to not be as great as pre-pandemic this summer. At a minimum, expect this to be the summer where you pay more and get less.
Across the board we’re seeing hotels and the tourism sector having staffing issues, so expect worse service, fewer things being open, higher prices, and longer lines for just about everything.
I know many people are excited to travel this summer, and that’s great. I don’t at all mean to take away from that. I just want to help people set realistic expectations. The fact that airports and airlines are going to be understaffed isn’t really within our control at this point.
What is within our control, however, is how we plan, and how we respond when things go wrong. Absolutely go out and travel, just don’t expect that it’ll be like 2019. And be nice to the people who are showing up to work, because they’re not the problem.
What are you expecting air travel to look like this summer? Anyone have a more optimistic outlook?