Air travel this year is set to exceed pre-pandemic levels but should be easier than the tumultuous summer of 2022, when passenger dissatisfaction was so intense that even the White House began an aggressive campaign to address customer service issues, aviation experts say.
What it means: Your flight is less likely to get cancelled this summer, though airlines are still facing challenges as travel interruptions due to pilot shortages and severe weather across the country.
- Travel is also costlier, though airfares have dropped in recent weeks. Bigger bills have not discouraged tourists, industry experts say.
- “Air travel this year is likely to surpass 2019. There’s more demand than airlines can meet, and ticket prices have been higher. People were confined to their homes for a long time and don’t seem to mind more expensive vacations,” said Bijan Vasigh, a professor of economics and finance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The good news: Scenes of chaos are less frequent at airports this summer than they were a year ago.
- Last year, more than 75,000 flights were canceled, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Through June this year, about 27,000 flights had been canceled.
- “It’s an improvement, though people who have been stuck at airports may not care,” Vasigh said.
More pilots, air traffic controllers needed: Airlines are challenged by staffing shortages—there were too many early retirements during the pandemic, experts say—and by a dearth of air controllers, which Congress is working to remedy.
- According to Vasigh, airlines encouraged too many pilots and other employees to take early retirement as demand for air travel collapsed in 2020 and 2021.
- “They aggressively worked to retire people with bonuses and years of pay: pilots, mechanics, gate agents. Now it is taking a long time to replace these people, who had training and many years of experience,” he said.
- A bill passed last week by the U.S. House gives the Federal Aviation Administration more money to hire air traffic controllers and raises the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 67. The Senate is working on its version of the bill.
Europe or bust: Demand for all air travel is up, but of particular note, interest in international travel has soared, often at high prices.
- According to AAA, international travel bookings though May are up 40 percent from last year, just 2 percent lower than travel for the same months in 2019.
- Travel website Kayak said searches for travel to Europe are up 55 percent from a year ago.
- “We haven’t seen this kind of demand for years. People are booking early for European vacations, tours, river cruises,” said Bob Thompson, owner of Ambassador Travel near Pittsburgh,
- Flights to Europe cost about $200 more than they did before the pandemic, Thompson said, but that’s not stopping people from traveling.
- Scheduled seats for transatlantic flights in the final quarter of 2023 are already 6 percent higher than in 2019 and 18 percent higher than they were last year, according to travel data firm ForwardKeys.
Momentum growing: If Europe is by far the most popular foreign destination, other countries that have been off limits for years are now making comebacks.
- “The Canadian Rockies are big again. I’ve also had a handful of people going to South Africa, Egypt, Vietnam and South America,” Thompson said.
- He has so far handled no bookings for China – “that will come back someday,” he said.