Even as flight cancellations and delays continue to mount this summer, the experience doesn’t have to be so nerve-wracking, travel industry experts said.
Airlines are struggling to keep pace with unprecedented demand that likely will not ease until the fall, travel experts and government officials predict.
“The summer travel season is expected to be very busy with passenger volumes nearly matching or exceeding those of 2019,” said R. Carter Langston, a Transportation Security Administration spokesperson.
More than 11.3 million travelers passed through airport security checkpoints nationwide from June 30 through July 4, just 7% short of the same five-day pre-COVID-19 holiday period in 2019, according to the TSA.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Summer air travel is expected to be as busy as it was in 2019, which the TSA says was the busiest season on record.
- As airlines struggle to keep pace amid staffing shortages, travel is likely to remain somewhat volatile until the fall.
- Some major airlines blame regulators and staffing shortages for flight disruptions, while pilot unions point to overscheduling and airline mismanagement.
The busiest day this year was July 1, when 2.49 million people were screened, exceeding the previous post-pandemic high of 2.46 million screened on June 26. Pre-pandemic, the TSA screened an average of 2 million to 2.5 million travelers daily.
Travel advisers, including Rebecca Alesia, owner of Oyster Bay-based agency Wanderology Luxury Travel, are seeing the uptick. Alesia said bookings are up at least 20% since 2019.
“The advisers in my office are working 14-, 15- and 16-hour days to keep up,” she said. “The demand is not like anything I’ve seen. It’s a frenzy.”
With the frenzy, though, consumers have had to deal with delays and cancellations.
There has been back and forth on the causes of the disruptions, with some major airlines blaming regulators and staffing shortages, while pilot unions point to overscheduling and airline mismanagement. The weather also has played a role.
Jon Roitman, CEO of United Airlines, said in a company memo earlier this week that there are more flights being scheduled than the Federal Aviation Administration can handle, especially in New York and Florida.
Over the past four months, more than 50% of delays and 75% of cancellations at United were a result of the agency’s traffic management, Roitman alleged in the memo. In a statement, the FAA said the majority of delays and cancellations are not a result of agency staffing, but conceded that air traffic control capacity is one factor among several that can lead to industrywide issues.
The uncertainties can test a person’s patience and nerves, but experts offered some travel tips.
When to fly
To safeguard against delays that often cascade into the afternoon and evening, travel experts recommend booking early morning flights. That’s because thunderstorms are likelier in the afternoon during the summer, according to the National Weather Service.
Seventy-five percent of all air travel delays originate in the New York region, creating a ripple effect across the country, AAA Northeast spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said. Outdated air traffic control radar used to track and detect planes is partly to blame, Sinclair said.
“With radar, when storms happen, they have to space planes out,” Sinclair said. “Planes usually fly within two to three miles of each other, and when weather is bad, they space them out between 25 and 50 miles between planes — and that leads to delays.”
Radar technology has gotten better, but there are still inaccuracies and time lags, according the to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In April, the Federal Aviation Administration received $1 billion to revamp the nation’s air traffic control system. The funding is part of a bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden.
It’s also a good idea to fly out midweek, on Tuesday or Wednesday, versus busier weekends, Sinclair said.
Getting to the airport
Taking mass transit, ride-share or a car service rather than weaving through airport parking lots is another way to avoid headaches, experts said.
Kennedy and LaGuardia airports have fewer parking spaces than in 2019, in part due to construction, according to the Port Authority. Kennedy’s green garage closed Friday for demolition linked to construction of Terminal One.
With more passengers driving to catch their flights and parking lots hitting capacity, the Port Authority is urging travelers to prebook spaces. Motorists who don’t prebook will be charged a summer surcharge.
If taking mass transit to LaGuardia, Long Island Rail Road riders can stop at the Woodside station and transfer to the free Q70 bus on Roosevelt Avenue.
Navigating the terminal
To forgo long security lines, passengers should consider enrolling in expedited programs such as TSA PreCheck and U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry, or the privately run Clear, travel experts said.
“I was at a flight at the Portland [Oregon] airport a couple of weeks back, [and] if I hadn’t had TSA PreCheck, I would have missed my flight … I showed up a normal 90 minutes ahead of time and the TSA lines were out the door. Give yourself an extra buffer,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.
As of January, more than 27 million people had enrolled in government traveler programs for expedited screening, a 44.8% increase since 2019, according to the TSA.
Passengers with TSA PreCheck, which costs $85 for five years, don’t have to remove shoes, laptops, belts or light jackets and also can keep their small bag of liquid containers inside their carry-on bags. Most get past security in five minutes or less, according to the TSA.
Global Entry costs $100 and is also valid for five years. Global Entry provides expedited screening for international passengers and includes TSA PreCheck.
Clear uses biometric screening for identity verification and claims to get travelers through faster security, with a yearly fee of $189.
To cut wait times for passport control, experts suggest downloading the mobile passport app on the Customs and Border Protection website.
Have a backup plan
Some travelers have resorted to booking simultaneous vacations during the same time frame, also called trip stacking, due to pandemic and flight-related volatility. Alesia said she booked three honeymoons for a couple in December last year because it wasn’t clear whether their No. 1 choice, Tahiti in French Polynesia, would remain open.
In the end, the couple made it to Tahiti.
“If you know you have to be back by a certain day, it’s not a bad idea to book a backup carrier and ride it out and have the second option for the following day. That’s definitely a creative way to handle the current situation,” Alesia said.
Before booking multiple flights on the same airlines, it’s important to understand airline and cancellation policies, she said.
Money back for canceled flights
If a trip was booked with a credit card, experts recommend checking the card’s travel protection plan or purchasing additional trip insurance. In the worst-case scenario, the law offers some relief.
“The final thing — remember that federal law says if an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight, you’re entitled to a full cash refund,” Keyes said. “You don’t have to take a voucher from the airline. You don’t have to take flight credit.”