Review of the reality of air travel in the summer of 2022

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The peak summer travel season is just around the corner, and that’s exciting for many. The world is finally starting to return to a (new) normal, travel and coronavirus restrictions are easing and people are ready to party like it’s the summer of 2019.

Unfortunately, this is where the similarities between summer 2019 and summer 2022 will end, especially on the travel side, and more specifically on the airline side. And while it gives me no joy to write this, I feel like it needs to be said…

Expect flight operations to be a mess all summer

My Twitter timeline seems to be a combination of people sharing where they can still find flight deals for this summer, and people sharing their horror stories about the current airport situation. We’ve seen airlines and airports struggle to keep up with increased passenger demand in recent months, and it’s about to get worse as the summer school holidays begin to kick in more and more.

I don’t want to say that everyone will have an absolutely horrible flying experience in the next two months. However, you shouldn’t be shocked at all if things don’t go as planned, and you should even expect it.

Frankly, I don’t even bat an eyelid anymore when I see a picture of a half mile long security line or a customer service desk that has hundreds of people waiting in line with only a few agents working . That’s just the reality of travel in 2022.

I’m not saying that every experience is going to be terrible. On the contrary, I’m sure some people will go through CLEAR and TSA Pre-Check quickly, fly nonstop on time, and have their checked baggage arrive within 20 minutes. However, I think people are lying to themselves if they think the even bigger increase in demand we’re going to see will lead to smoother operations.

Airlines will have meltdowns this summer

How to prepare for your plane trip this summer

I’m not saying you should be happy about it, or that the airlines should get away with it, but you should expect air travel to be a mess and plan accordingly, because you can only control too many things.

Among others:

  • I’ve never recommended this before, but for many airports you shouldn’t just arrive an hour or two early, but maybe three or four hours early instead; this is especially true if you do not have access to priority services
  • Airlines make a ton of schedule changes, so don’t expect your current itinerary to stick; if you are on a cruise or have an engagement you can’t miss, don’t go the same day, or even just a day early, but go two or three days early
  • Leave very long connections, in order to maximize your chances of actually making your flights; if you miss your connection, it may take a long time before there is another flight available to book on
  • If you’re checking baggage, you’ll mostly want to leave a very long connection, given the shortage of baggage handlers in so many places; otherwise you might find yourself arriving at your destination without your bag
  • Fly on off-peak days if you can (midweek), and ideally fly earlier in the day rather than later in the day, as things tend to get more complicated as the day progresses

Like I said, none of this is to say you should be happy with it, or that airlines and airports shouldn’t be held responsible (though we’ll get to that later). But rather if you’re going to post a video on Twitter with 500 people in line it should be with the caption “FYI here’s a 500 person line waiting for two customer service agents not surprising” and not “OMFG can you think that there are 500 people waiting for two customer service agents, f*&$ [insert airline name]I will never fly with them again.

Be especially kind to airline staff

I want to dedicate a brief section to this specifically. If you’re traveling this summer, be sure to be kind to the frontline workers in the airline industry. They are not the problem, they are the solution. And if you think your travel experience is stressful for the few hours you spend in an airport or on a plane, imagine what it’s like for them every day now.

The fact that airports and airlines are understaffed is not the fault of those who show up for work. On the contrary, they are the ones who suffer the most.

Are the airlines really responsible for these problems?

I certainly don’t want to give airlines (and airports) a free pass for operational issues, and in particular for being overly optimistic with their scheduling. In an effort to maximize profits, airlines schedule flights based on a best-case scenario for staffing, rather than a worst-case scenario. It’s not cool.

That being said, aren’t these issues true throughout our economy? The airline industry is one of the most complex industries in the world, even under the best of circumstances. There are so many outside forces impacting the ability of airlines to operate (as we see in Amsterdam with the lack of security personnel).

But even bigger than that, could someone tell me what industry is reliably supplying right now? Airlines are always an easy punching bag because consumers generally love them as much as cable companies.

I have the impression that at the moment you cannot get any service reliably. Sure, your flight may be delayed for a few hours, but at least it’s not delayed for six months, unlike a lot of other things people are buying right now. This is not to excuse the airlines for their lack of performance, but rather to say that I am not sure they are doing a particularly bad job, given all that is going on.

Many factors affect airline problems

My recent flight experience in Europe

In the United States, we often view airline operational problems as primarily a national problem, but the reality is that things are at least as bad in Europe, if not worse. So if you’re planning on traveling to or through Europe this summer, expect it to be tough.

Just to give an example of what I’ve seen in the last few days in Europe, and it’s not even summer school vacation here yet:

  • Yesterday morning Frankfurt airport was busier than I have ever seen before; luckily I didn’t have to go through security or passport control
  • Our checked bags didn’t arrive despite a very reasonable connection time, and as you’d expect the queue for lost bags was very long (we’ve been in Europe for over a month, that’s why we checked baggage)
  • Yesterday at Dusseldorf airport I saw the longest security line I have ever seen

I certainly don’t see things improving in the coming weeks…

European airlines also have reliability issues

I’m happy not to travel in July and August

As I mentioned above, I’m in Europe for June, as I figured it would help me somewhat avoid the summer travel rush (admittedly, many Americans already have vacations schools, but not Europeans). It’s already too wild for me here.

I don’t have a real trip planned for July or August, and my plan is to keep it that way. I’m happy to let the rest of the world travel as they please, and I’m just going to relax/sweat it up in Florida, hoping everyone leaves the state.

Other aspects of the trip won’t get much better

While I’m keeping this message mostly airline specific, I think it’s also worth mentioning that I would expect many aspects of travel not to be as good as they were before the pandemic this summer. At a minimum, expect this to be the summer where you pay more and get less.

Overall we see that hotels and the tourism sector are having staffing issues, so expect worse service, fewer things open, higher prices and queues longer for just about everything.

Also expect service issues at hotels

At the end of the line

I know a lot of people are excited to travel this summer, and that’s great. I don’t want to take that away at all. I just want to help people set realistic expectations. The fact that airports and airlines are going to be understaffed is not really in our control at this point.

What is in our control, however, is how we plan and how we react when things go wrong. Definitely get out and travel, but don’t expect it to be like 2019. And be nice to people who show up for work, because they’re not the problem.

What do you think air travel will look like this summer? Does anyone have a more optimistic view?

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