Going Nowhere Fast
By Faigy Grunfeld
“It was a serious miscalculation,”
says Henchy Friedman about her recent decision to fly from Toronto back to New York after visiting for a simchah. “My baby was just so cranky in the car on the way there that I thought I’d save us all a headache by flying back with him while my husband and the rest of the kids did the drive.”
After spending nearly 24 hours in Pearson Airport trying to catch that one-hour flight to Newark, she would have happily settled for the 8-hour headache, because she ended up with a full-blown, two-day migraine.
“I’ve never had such a dysfunctional experience at the airport,” she says, describing endless lines for check-in, baggage, TSA and customs. “Once I was at the terminal it just went from bad to worse.”
Scheduled for a midday flight, the airline boarded nearly two hours late, and then kept passengers sitting on the tarmac for another two hours before announcing that they would be disembarking. “The flight was canceled.”
Because the plane had left the gate although it hadn’t taken off, Henchy had to go through customs again, as if returning to Canada.
“After that, my husband quickly booked me on another flight with another airline at 9:15 p.m.”
Waiting another couple of hours for that, with a miserable baby in tow and her family long settled in Brooklyn, snickering at her failed attempt to beat them home, Henchy soon learned that that flight was canceled as well.
“A friend picked me up and hosted me for the night, and then I finally managed to fly home the next morning at 11 a.m.,” she says ruefully.
Her travel woes are hardly isolated or anecdotal. They represent a trend of delays and cancellations emerging at many airports around the globe this season.
On July 12, Heathrow Airport announced it would cap the number of departing passengers to 100,000 a day, asking airlines to halt new ticket sales from its location for the rest of the summer. It’s not the only one making such demands. London Gatwick Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol have requested the same, with all three hubs acting as gateways for U.S. travelers in search of European destinations.
American airports are feeling the strain as well.
Airlines are cancelling staggering numbers of flights without any path towards rescheduling them. As of early July, British Airways had already cancelled nearly 30,000 flights for this spring/summer season, not including last-minute cancellations. KLM, the Dutch airlines, announced it was cutting a couple thousand flights across its line and that it would halt the sale of tickets for European destinations in order to keep spots open for disrupted passengers. Wizz Air, a Hungarian carrier, plans to cut 5% of its capacity as well.
What’s gumming up air travel these summer months, why can’t airports keep up with the demand, and what can travelers expect moving forward?
“I went to bring my mother-in-law to the airport this week,” says Henny Markowitz. “We walked inside, and I literally felt my breath catch. It was a sea of people from one end of the airport to the other,” she says. “You couldn’t see any empty space. I’ve never seen an airport like that before.
Her mother-in-law had the good fortune to make it onto her flight and into the air despite a short delay, but many others haven’t had the same experience. Some airports in Europe even have check-in lines snaking outside terminals with passengers requiring serious early planning and arriving to wait out the queues so as not to miss departure. That is if the flight takes off on time. Or at all.
Why is travel so disrupted this season?
For Christine Vogt, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor, Former Director, Center for Sustainable Tourism, School of Community Resources and Development, Arizona State University, the answer is two-fold. “The summer of 2022 is proving to be a case study for many demand and supply forces at play.”
With two COVID summers resulting in many outdoorsy vacations like camping, renting Airbnbs or VRBOs, or hitting the road to visit national landmarks, the public is ready for some traditional excursioning via the skies.
“With less pandemic travel restrictions, travel by air is rising,” she says, pointing at those who have been waiting to visit family, an increase in business trips and resuming student travel. TSA reported that a staggering 2.5 million travelers moved through American airports on July 2nd, the highest rate since February 2020. Demand is high.
As for the supply side, the pandemic continues to put pressure on labor forces. “New variants of the virus have hit many parts of the world and impacted workers’ ability to be on the job. High levels of COVID can put an employee out of work for 5 to 10 days; this severely impacts the service industry which includes travel and tourism.”
Another variable to contend with is a service industry already beleaguered by high quits rates and increased salaries. “Some businesses will cut jobs or not replace workers who quit or retire in an effort to manage costs.”
Frederic Dimanche, Ph.D, Director, Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University, highlights the labor shortage as well.
“Travel companies, airports, etc., laid off numerous employees in the past two years while the travel sector was on pause and many of these workers have not come back,” he says. “They took jobs in other sectors, often with better compensation and more stable scheduling, leading to a better quality of life. In addition, there is currently very low unemployment so the travel sector has difficulty replacing the lost employees.”
And finally, it takes time to train in new recruits. Pilots, airline crews, security officers…it’s a slow go of things.
One aviation service is currently looking to fill nearly 20,000 positions, with its usual staff of 65,000 reduced to 45,000. Others are similarly looking to hire, offering sign-up bonuses and other incentives.
Airlines are also extra eager to fill as many seats as possible on as many flights as possible to help recoup some of the dramatic losses incurred over the past two years. They are leaving little room for error.
It hasn’t helped that some odd technology glitches have cropped up as well. In mid-July, American Airlines’ computer system mistakenly allowed pilots to drop thousands of upcoming summer flight trips, creating a scheduling nightmare for the company. The airline claims it will restore the original schedule, but the pilots’ union says that would violate its contract.
Airport execs are also pointing fingers at air traffic control, which they say is understaffed and behind schedule even in good weather.
All of which might explain the astonishing dysfunction in the world’s largest airports.
Heathrow’s Chief Executive issued a statement explaining the airport’s decision to cut flights noting that “long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality and last-minute cancellations” are just some of the challenges their hub is facing because of staffing shortages.
Heathrow is currently cutting 4,000 seats a day, and will impose this cap through early September, cancelling flights that exceed its capacity. Taking steps to meet the surge, the airport exec says it has reopened Terminal 4 to ease some of the endless lines and is laser focused on securing more staff. Although Heathrow has been hiring for the past 8 months and is nearly at pre-pandemic staffing rates, it is struggling with a number of “critical functions,” particularly “ground handlers.”
Which might explain why headlines like “Lost Baggage Is the Latest Summer Trouble” abound.
“I’m just glad I didn’t have any baggage,” says Henchy, whose husband and kids had all the suitcases with them in the car. “During my two-day stay at the airport I heard a bunch of people freaking out about missing bags.”
Charles de Gaulle airport in early July had one disastrous weekend with 17,000 bags being delayed over the 24-hour period. Handlers worked overnight to manually sort through bags and hurry them off to their destinations. In Toronto’s Pearson Airport there are photos circulating of unclaimed baggage with days-old travel tags piling up near carousels.
Data on missing bags isn’t widely available, but SITA, one bag-tracking company, reported that the mishandled bags rate was three times higher this winter than the winter last year, and five times higher this spring than that of last year. International and connecting flights are most susceptible to mishap, with the chances of having a missing bag increasing sixfold compared to domestic, direct travel.
Blue Ribbon Bags, another tracking — as well as retrieval — service, where clients pay the company $5 before a flight, told The Wall Street Journal that over the past few months 10 in every 1,000 bags is reported delayed or lost, which is double the 2019 rate.
One of the challenges with hiring new ground handlers and airport personnel is the security process. It can take two to three months for new staff to get clearance so they can move around different parts of the airport. Although hiring and training may be the work of a few weeks, this additional delay creates a bottleneck. Worker strikes are another variable with which airports must contend.
Whatever the backend story, travelers are getting the memo that they may not get their essentials back upon arrival. “If I ever get back on a flight, despite my resolution not to, I am definitely only taking hand luggage,” says Henchy.
Airlines and airports are built for the current capacity and must have been expecting an increase in flying. Why can’t they keep up with the summer boom?
“Yes, indeed,” says Professor Dimanche. “Airports and airlines are built for higher capacity… and currently, fewer planes are flying than in 2019. But the stress on the employees on the job is growing.”
He says they are asked to work longer hours and more days to compensate for the demand. As a result, there are increases in workers strikes as well as requests for higher pay and better working conditions. With that employer-employee give-and-take underway, it’s not hard to imagine a somewhat distracted workforce.
“Finally, we are still in a pandemic and workers, like everyone else, do get infected by the virus and are asked to stay at home for a few days when that’s the case,” he adds.
“Airlines and airports are probably the most impacted service provider in the tourism system,” says Professor Vogt. “Many travelers did not fly during the pandemic, but now demand is high for both domestic and international travel. Lower cost airlines have become almost like taking a train or intercity bus.”
She says Americans, Europeans, and Asians have become particularly reliant on short-haul, budget carriers. “In Europe, Easyjet, a budget airlines, has cancelled flights, leaving passengers stranded. Ryanair, another European budget carrier, is ready to face striking workers. Airlines are too reliant on a variety of workers to overcome excessive demand or any problems in supplying service.”
Interestingly, U.S. airports seem to be faring slightly better than European ones, despite grappling with its own lean staff. However, delays and cancellations are also baked into the American travel experience this season. The July 4th weekend saw about 1,200 cancelled flights over a two-day period, much of it due to thunderstorms, with Sunday and Monday boasting a few hundred.
Air travel went from a sluggish trickle to a fierce rush. Is the sudden uptick surprising?
No, say both experts.
“Most COVID travel restrictions have been lifted,” says Professor Vogt. “The U.S. is poised for increased travel from abroad as the mandatory COVID testing was recently lifted in June 2022. Americans are traveling with the strong dollar to help their purchasing power, despite rising inflation globally.”
She says travelers are now focused on whether the airlines and airports can deliver.
“Almost every day, the number of cancelled flights and other travel disruptions are reported on the news. This may cause travelers to think twice before they buy a plane ticket for domestic or international destinations.”
Professor Dimanche says people are eager to meet family and friends, get away from home and experience a change of scenery.
“Many have saved money on travel in the past two years and despite the current inflation, they are willing to spend.”
Another variable contributing to the uptick is the fear factor, or lack of it. “People seem to have overcome their fear of travelling,” he points out. “They are more confident now that most people have been vaccinated or have already been exposed to the virus. Travel increased dramatically in the first 6 months of 2022 but we are still below 2019 levels.”
He says airlines sold many tickets, hoping for a lucrative summer season, but they simply didn’t expect this level of difficulty with operations due to the labor gap.
“Experts were closely watching COVID statistics and policies related to keeping infected people out of the air with mandatory testing,” says Professor Vogt. “It was hard to know when restrictions would be lifted. But the U.S. lifting of required testing to enter the U.S. coincided with the state of the summer travel season leaving no warm-up to the tidal wave of travelers.”
Fly the Future
Is this a summer bubble, or will it translate into a long-term return to flying?
“I believe flight-based vacations and business travel will return,” says Professor Vogt. “Events like 9/11 and COVID brought down the airlines industry, but the demand for flying remains strong and growing.”
She says many new short-haul airlines have been launched in recent years making plane travel more affordable, and most airlines continue to add new routes, suggesting high hopes for the future. “At the same time, airlines have reduced the number of flights in their schedules and canceled flights. Both growth and contraction are strategies airlines will use to manage their fleets, workforce, and customer expectations,” she explains.
“Given a controlled pandemic with proper barrier gestures (masking) and continued vaccination, the return of travel will continue to materialize,” says Professor Dimanche. “However, business travel will remain more limited: Companies will continue to save money on travel as they have realized that they can do business efficiently with less travel.”
An additional deterrent will be the hassle many now associate with air travel thanks to a haphazard summer.
For Henchy, her lengthy airport stay will take a while to fade from memory. “I’m not getting on a plane,” she says flatly.
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