Summer Travel Forecast: Plenty Of Flight Delays And Cancellations, With Higher Airfares

Yesterday, 462 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were cancelled and 6,623 were delayed, according to FlightAware, an app that provides real-time, historical, and predictive flight tracking data.

That wasn’t just a blip. Thousands of flights were delayed or canceled the day before, as well as the day before that.

While many of these disruptions can be chalked up to staffing shortages, it’s worth noting that pilots from Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines have been picketing in the past week. “That means there’s a systemic issue that isn’t going away by summer in terms of flight crew or pilot shortages,” says Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware.

Symptomatic of the same problem is that carriers like JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have been cutting back on routes — not just for a few days or weeks, but months into the future as they try to manage staff shortages.

One airline pulling out or reducing frequency on a route can greatly impact airfares. “We’ve seen that when lower-cost carriers, such as JetBlue, enter a new route, it can drive down prices overall on the route by about 20%,” says Berg, lead economist at the deal-finding site Hopper. “However, when there’s less competition on a route because that carrier exits, prices tend to rebound by about 12%.”

“In one-off instances this won’t have a significant impact on airfare,” says Berg. “But extended and far-reaching cancellations will have a more pronounced impact on demand and put upward pressure on airfare.”

This partly explains why some carriers are backpedaling on their initial peak-season projections. “Some airlines like Alaska Airlines were forecasting even greater capacity than in pre-pandemic 2019, but have had to scale back sky high expectations slightly due to labor shortages and increased pilot attrition and pilot shortages,” says Bangs. “Other airlines such as Southwest are reporting seeing similar issues with not being able to get enough pilots trained and back online.”

For the airlines and their customers, staffing problems couldn’t come at a worse time. As infections from the original omicron variant fell in February and March, travel demand came roaring back. Currently, U.S. airline passenger volume is averaging about 92% of the pre-pandemic levels, according to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) throughput data.

Surging demand, coupled with a 30% rise in fuel prices since Russia invaded Ukraine, is sending airfares skyward as we head into the summer travel season.

As of now, domestic airfare is trending 7% above 2019 prices at $330 round-trip, according to Hopper’s data. “That is the highest average domestic airfare we’ve seen since we started collecting this data,” says Berg. “International airfare is matching 2019 prices at $810 round trip.”

Bangs doesn’t see a quick fix on the horizon. “What we’re seeing is not just a growing pilot shortage,” she says. “For some carriers it’s attrition to other rival airlines that pilots view as having better working conditions, greater pay, or a more favorable union contract.”

“Many airlines are building up relationships with aviation universities and with regional carriers to create a pipeline of pilots they can draw from, but right now that well is getting dry as the regionals struggle to keep their top-tier pilots long enough to meet the demands of their schedules,” explains Bangs.

For travelers who haven’t booked their summer vacations yet, Berg recommends not waiting too much longer, since the combination of booming demand, higher jet fuel prices and airline staff shortages will only drive summer airfares higher still.

“Prices are on the rise overall this summer, so you should use a price monitoring app like Hopper to start tracking fares now so you can buy at the right time,” she advises. “In general, you’ll want to book summer trips by the first week of May.”

I watch trends in travel. Prior to working at Forbes, I was a longtime freelancer who contributed hundreds of articles to Conde Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, Travel + Leisure, Afar, Reader’s

Source: Summer Travel Forecast: Plenty Of Flight Delays And Cancellations, With Higher Airfares


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