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Dozens of travelers check in for their flights at LAX Friday in May 2021. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

If traveling this holiday season, be sure to pack your patience.

High prices, full flights and long lines have become a hallmark of post-pandemic air travel, which will be tested over Thanksgiving as a crush of humanity takes to the skies.

Airlines see high demand for their services, but are constrained by the tight labor market that has slowed a full industry rebound.

Air carriers and airports have planned and prepped in hopes of avoiding the travel debacle of this summer that resulted in thousands of travelers facing dramatic flight changes, cancellations and lost luggage worldwide.

But high passenger volumes can still strain the system — and consumers, however mentally prepared, may face unexpected setbacks.

“Even if you plan ahead, that doesn’t help you in a TSA line,” said Linda Snyder, vice president of travel and retail services for AAA Minneapolis.

And whether it’s lodging, car rentals or airplane tickets, travel experts say book now. Capacity will be limited and prices will only rise.

“If you still need a hotel, wherever you’re going, plan ahead because hotels aren’t always filling to capacity because of labor shortages,” Snyder said. “They may not have enough people to check people in or they don’t have enough housekeeping.”

Despite five job fairs in the past 15 months, several hundred positions remain open within airports across the nation.

There is good news as more concessions are open at airports; rental cars can be found; hotels are taking bookings and airline executives say their businesses have improved operational reliability.

Executives of Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines say they are hiring pilots and other employees, but the training cycle takes time and may inhibit their ability to meet demand for the holidays.

“We are not going to be able to fly as much as we want to fly and I think the entire industry will be in that situation,” said Greg Mays, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Sun Country.

On an Oct. 13 earnings call, Delta executives said they’re seeing a shift in winter holiday booking patterns that gives cause for optimism. Travelers are lengthening their trips by tacking on days and working remotely. So, the busiest travel days during the holidays may become a little less congested.

Historically, Delta’s highest revenue day has been the Sunday after Thanksgiving, said Glen Hauenstein, the airline’s president. “That’s now a little bit lighter, and we see that travel moving into Monday and Tuesday returns.”

Sun Country was able to retain many of its pilots during the pandemic thanks to a fortuitously timed air cargo contract with retail giant Amazon that provided work shifts for its aviators. The growth-minded airline is now busy training employees for the company’s specialty — the winter season, when travel demand for warmer climes is high among Minnesotans.

Executives at Delta, the dominant airline at MSP, have pledged to be at full capacity by next summer. The carrier offered early retirement packages in 2020 and lost 2,000 of its 14,000 pilots. Since then, the carrier has been hiring. Delta has hired more than 20,000 new employees in the past year — its most ever in a calendar cycle.

But adding workers, especially pilots, can be a long process. Not only do new pilots need to be trained on their aircraft, but the airline’s rapid turnover meant many of its existing pilots were promoted to captain or assigned a different type of airplane model, both of which require additional training.

Since mid-July, Delta operations have been running better than they were pre-pandemic, said Ed Bastian, the airline’s chief executive, last month during the Airports Council International conference in Minneapolis. The airline extended summertime trans-Atlantic schedules into the fall for the first time as Americans take advantage of the strong U.S. dollar overseas.

Last December, flight cancellations and delays rippled across the industry as crews called in sick from the omicron variant’s rapacious spread. Sun Country also experienced an IT glitch over two days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that led to canceled flights for thousands of passengers. The carrier was forced to conduct a data system update at that time to resolve the issue.

Since then, to avoid similar meltdowns, Sun Country has transitioned some data to the cloud, worked through business continuity plans and beefed up contingency plans, Mays said.

Inflation: The menacing threat

Add to all this uncertainty the looming threat of inflation. Rising prices are starting to cause behavior changes, a Bankrate survey of 2,455 adults in September showed.

Of the 43% of U.S. adults that expect to travel this holiday season, about 8 in 10 are changing their plans because of inflation and rising prices, the survey found.

They are either shortening trips, trying less expensive activities, seeking cheaper destinations and accommodations, traveling shorter distances or taking fewer trips, the survey said.

Younger family members may not come home for the holidays. The Bankrate survey showed that 82% of Gen Z and millennial respondents are most likely to change plans because of rising costs.

Snyder isn’t seeing skyrocketing prices reduce overall demand at AAA Minneapolis, though she observes some young families are considering scaling back vacations.

“Really, what we see here is the boomers and older people that are spending the money, no matter what.”

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