Memorial Day weekend marks the start of busiest travel season; are we in for another chaotic summer?


Last Memorial Day weekend was the inaugural mess in a summer of air travel mayhem. With significantly more Americans expected to head to airports this holiday weekend, the strained system faces its first big seasonal crush. Are travelers in for another bright summer?

Some experts predict a smoother season for air travelers.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we won’t see a repeat of the flight disruption debacle that kicked off summer 2022,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel website Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Keyes puts his optimism down to “preventive measures” that airlines are taking: issuing more realistic schedules, building buffers to limit cascading disruptions, cutting flights out of New York’s three busy airports and flying larger planes to still meet high demand.

The number of air travelers over the holiday weekend is expected to increase 11% over last year, according to AAA’s forecast, and more than 5% over 2019’s pre-pandemic volume.

Remember what pre-pandemic summer travel looked like?

“The summer has always been a period of discontent,” said airline industry analyst Bob Mann, founder of RW Mann & Company, who noted that this was the case for him whether he was an airline executive or a passenger. It is a period of peak demand and resource-constrained supply, he said.

One of the biggest limitations at the moment: air traffic control personnel. The Federal Aviation Administration is about 3,000 controllers short of ideal staffing levels.

This could result in problems for passengers.

“Full flights, hot cabins, everyone sharing an armrest, fewer flights than 2019 and even fewer flights in the Northeast due to FAA restrictions mean limited options to re-accommodate passengers from delayed and canceled flights, which means more passenger travel disruptions and disruptions .” Mann said.

The Northeast is not the only problem. Recent CNN reporting revealed the extent and impact of understaffing at a key facility in Jacksonville, Florida that handles air traffic into Florida and the Caribbean.

“Right now, about two out of every 10 ATC positions in the United States are unfilled,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and spokeswoman for flight-tracking website FlightAware. “You really need some of your most experienced controllers to run the busiest airspace.”

And pilots are fed up – they’re negotiating for more pay and threatening strikes.

However, airlines and regulators have taken steps to ease pressure points, and unrest among passengers is trending down. Add in a lot of luck with the weather, and there might be a better summer ahead.

Preventive measures

First, the favorable tea leaves:

The FAA rearranged East Coast flight routes to ease expected delays due to air traffic control shortages, and airlines tweaked their schedules at New York airports to account for the shortages. The FAA also adopted new guidelines for commercial space launches that could otherwise add pressure to already tight airspace in places such as Florida.

Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics says airlines have about 48,000 more employees than they did at this time last year, a sign that staffing increases due to massive layoffs caused by the pandemic are finally gaining steam.

“The combination of more trained employees on the job and fewer flights overall has helped avoid any airline meltdowns so far for 2023,” Bangs said.

Mike Boyd, president of aviation forecasting and consulting firm Boyd Group International, doesn’t foresee many problems with airline operations this summer.

“I think it’s going to be kind of a non-event. I really do. I don’t think it’s going to be something for consumers to really worry about,” Boyd said.

Air traffic control might be a different story.

Air traffic controllers are key

The FAA has warned that a lack of a controller will affect travel this summer, especially for New York’s three major airports. On both Sunday and Monday, a lack of a controller caused flight disruptions at Denver International Airport.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby cited the lack of air traffic controllers as his main concern heading into the summer.

“This is the thing that’s limiting operations across the country. It’s by far the biggest thing,” Kirby told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on CNN This Morning.

A lack of controllers caused thousands of flight disruptions last summer. But many thousands more – the majority of disruptions – were caused by the airlines’ operational challenges, which ranged from staff shortages to bad weather.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg addressed the controller understaffing problem at a press conference on Tuesday. “It’s a concern, and it’s part of what motivates us now to put so much emphasis on recruiting, hiring and training,” he said.

Buttigieg said that while the FAA is working to solve its problems, airlines have been responsible for more delays, and they need to address their problems as well. He also noted that many have hired more staff in the past year.

“These airlines can be perfectly profitable while treating passengers better,” he said.

The industry group representing airlines said it was “very concerned” about air traffic control staff but was focused on completing flights.

“There’s really not a lot of room for blame and finger-pointing,” Nick Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, told CNN. “There are many reasons for cancellations… What if a lack of staff at an air traffic center causes a delay and the delay cascades? Who is responsible? So, you know our responsibility – everyone’s responsibility – is to the passengers and the cargo.”

While Boyd predicts relatively smooth operations for airlines, he called FAA staffing “another issue” and referred to the disruption this week in Denver.

“That could be a new dynamic. If that’s the case, we may have some meltdowns, but it won’t be airline-driven, it will be FAA-driven,” Boyd said.

And, of course, there’s the weather factor.

“Summer always features lines of thunderstorms moving across the national airspace, disrupting air traffic, and this summer may include more of the even higher energy weather we’re increasingly seeing every day,” Mann said.

Tips for smoother flights

Clearly, many factors are beyond a traveler’s control. But with AAA expecting 3.4 million people to fly over the holiday period, every little bit of preparation counts. The FAA is forecasting more than 51,000 flights on Thursday, which is expected to be the busiest day for flights. Federal officials anticipate the peak number of passengers on Friday.

Here’s what you can do to prepare:

Fly direct and early in the day – on the first flight if possible.

The weather is generally better in the morning, Keyes said, and your plane should be parked overnight so you won’t be waiting on a plane. And you won’t risk missing connections flying directly.

If you have a connecting flight, Bangs says to make sure the time between connections is sufficient considering the distance between terminals, whether you’re traveling with children and how quickly you can navigate a busy terminal with carry-on bags.

Check the big picture weather. Bangs suggests reviewing the National Weather Service website in the days before your flight for a comprehensive overview of systems that could affect your plans. And download your airline’s app for easy flight updates.

Know your rights. The Department of Transportation has created an online dashboard outlining what carriers will provide in various scenarios.

“If an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight — regardless of the reason why, even if due to bad weather — under federal law, you are entitled to a full cash refund if you no longer wish to travel,” Keyes said.

Have a backup plan, even if it’s a last resort.

“If you’re on one of these carriers that only flies like three days a week to a destination, man, when they cancel, you better have a backup plan because planes break down, and if the next flight is next Tuesday and it is full. , you have a problem,” Boyd said.

Bangs said that means having a plan to continue your journey or return home.

“Anything from having enough balance on a credit card to buy another ticket if needed (while you sort things out later with the offending carrier) to trading frequent flyer miles for a last-minute ticket if stranded,” she said.

Here are some more tips for navigating flight disruptions. Fingers crossed for smooth travels.

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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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