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It’s a travel season unlike any other.
Anyone looking for a summer getaway is likely to find themselves caught in a chaotic web of canceled flights, pricey rental cars or fully booked hotels. The prospect of getting from point A to point B without an expensive headache may seem all but impossible.
Consider this: On Wednesday, 639 flights within, into, or out of the United States were canceled, and 5,837 were delayed, according to flight tracking data from FlightAware.
Delta Air Lines alone has trimmed about 100 flights a day from its schedule in July to “minimize disruptions” and has issued a waiver for July 4 travelers as it braces for passenger volumes “not seen since before the pandemic.”
Renting a car – if you can find one – will likely cost you more than years past. And hotel prices are climbing nationwide too. So much for relaxation.
What’s going on?
Your summer travel woes (probably) aren’t your fault. In the sky, airlines have significantly fewer employees, especially pilots, than they did before the pandemic. And on the road, a shortage of available vehicles has pushed rental car prices up double digits.
Add in record high inflation with a remarkable demand for leisure travel and you have a recipe for trouble.
A lot of this turbulence can be traced back to Covid-19.
It starts with demand. Airlines and hotels are forecasting record travel this summer as Americans who delayed trips during the pandemic return to vacationing.
Demand meets short staffing. Though airlines received $54 billion in federal assistance during Covid’s peak to avoid involuntary layoffs, they have fewer employees after offering buyouts and early retirement packages to trim staff and save money.
Short staffing creates problems. As a result, operations can quickly fall apart when there’s bad weather, understaffed air traffic control centers or sick staff.
Then there’s inflation. The Consumer Price Index, the government’s leading inflation measure, estimates that overall fares were up 37.8% in May compared to the previous year, and up 21.7% compared to May of 2019, before the pandemic.
Remember, in the throes of the outbreak, the Federal Reserve implemented emergency stimulus measures to keep financial markets from tanking. The central bank slashed interest rates to near zero and began pumping tens of billions of dollars every month into the markets by buying up corporate debt.
In doing so, the bank likely prevented a financial meltdown. But keeping those easy money policies in place has also fueled inflation, which is why your airline ticket costs a lot more than it used to.
Rental cars also have a pandemic problem. During the height of the pandemic, the industry sold off more than a half a million cars, about a third of their combined fleets, just to generate cash they needed to survive the crisis. Following a year of deep losses, rental car companies have had trouble rebuilding their fleets to meet demand, resulting in exorbitantly high prices before you even fill up the tank.
Hotels, too. You won’t feel much relief when you reach your destination either. Remember the issue of pent-up travel demand? That’s crashing into a limited number of places to stay and resulting in some eye-popping prices.
The rate for an average hotel room is 23% higher than last year, according to AAA.
What’s the Biden administration doing?
Earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged airline executives in a private conversation to review their flight schedules and take other steps to soften the impact of summer flight cancellations, a source familiar with the call told CNN’s Gregory Wallace.
The source said Buttigieg asked CEOs to talk through plans to prevent and respond to disruptions over the July Fourth holiday weekend and beyond.
What are airlines saying?
US airlines want you to know they’re trying. Airlines for America, the group representing major US airlines, told CNN in a statement Thursday that it is making “every effort to help ensure smooth travel this weekend.”
“U.S. airlines are navigating a range of challenges – including weather and staffing at the carrier and federal government level – and making every effort to help ensure smooth travel this weekend and year-round. As always, we are working closely and collaboratively with the federal government to address challenges, including inclement weather, so adjustments to schedules can be made and carriers can communicate with travelers as early as possible,” the statement said.
The group’s airline members are taking different approaches to reducing summer flight disruptions, including cutting the number of flights and allowing passengers to rebook without fees for non-peak periods.
Still, critics say airlines should have anticipated a lot of these issues ahead of the summer travel season.
How long will this last?
Read this piece by aviation journalist John Walton.
He writes: In almost every case, the problem is that too many experienced people were let go during the pandemic – either laid off or given a voluntary out – and that airlines, airports, and other key parts of the aviation system have not hired and qualified enough people to replace them.
That qualification point is important. As airlines and airports know all too well, there’s a whole process involved to get someone the kind of security pass that allows them to work on an airplane or at an airport gate.
Put differently, travel is going to be difficult for a while.
How can you prepare?
If you do have summer travel plans, you’re not doomed. The CNN travel team pulled together practical tips that will help you reach your destination if it involves flying.
The earlier the better. Taking a flight that departs early in the day helps to avoid the cascading effect of delays and cancellations. Bad weather is also more likely to affect later flights.
Leave cushion time for can’t-miss events. Don’t travel on the day of an important event such as a wedding. Plan to arrive at least one day early.
Ask for a hotel voucher if your flight is canceled. If you can’t get on a flight the same day, it’s worth asking for meal or hotel vouchers. In many cases, such as weather events, airlines aren’t required to provide them, but it’s worth asking.
Most importantly, stay considerate. Don’t take your frustration out on customer service employees. They aren’t making the operations decisions.
CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Chuck Johnston and Ramishah Maruf, contributed to this report.