Is Flying This Summer Going to Be a Repeat of the 2022 Air Travel Mess? What the Experts Think

As a record number of travelers prepares to head out for their summer getaways, industry experts weigh in on whether we can expect canceled and delayed flights on par with what we witnessed last year.

Busy TSA security screening area at Denver airport

Whatever you decided to pack this summer, just don’t forget to pack some patience.

Photo by Shutterstock

With the official start of the summer travel season just four weeks away, memories of last year’s air travel “flightmare” are still fresh in travelers’ minds.

And they have reason to worry. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and travel industry officials are all warning that travel volumes could hit record levels this summer, possibly exceeding 3 million daily passengers on the busiest days. Meanwhile, many of the problems that led to an onslaught of canceled and delayed flights in 2022—such as airline and airport staffing shortages—haven’t gone away.

“It will be a challenge,” TSA administrator David Pekoske admitted earlier this month. The agency hopes to head off backups at checkpoints with a recruitment drive, including signing bonuses and pay raises slated to kick in on July 1. But it’s not clear whether enough new hires will be made in time for the summer rush.

When asked during a media call this week what travelers can expect this summer, U.S. Travel Association CEO Geoff Freeman responded, “In terms of what are they going to confront this summer? They’re going to confront a very busy experience. They’re going to confront longer lines. I think we should be prepared for that.”

Strikes in Europe already causing problems

Across the pond, strikes by pilots and airport workers have already lead to a sharp rise in flight cancellations and delays, with the threat of more walkouts during the peak summer travel season. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany have been most affected by the labor unrest so far.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented uptick in demand for long-haul travel,” said Christina Tunnah, general manager of marketing and brands at World Nomads, a global travel insurance provider. Given the issues that have already surfaced even before the start of the high season, travelers are again facing a rash of flight disruptions, as well as lost baggage, she said.

“The system has yet to fully recover to meet growing demand,” said Tunnah, noting that travel insurers are already seeing a rise in claims. Most claims in the summer of 2022 were filed for trip disruptions, with about 10 percent resulting from luggage mishaps.

Given all of this, “It’s hard not to be concerned about how things will shake out this summer,” said airline expert William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project.

Airlines are proactively cutting thousands of East Coast departures

Observers were recently encouraged, however, when the FAA succeeded in pressuring airlines to voluntarily trim flights in the most congested airspace in the country—the New York City area. Effective May 15, American, Delta, JetBlue, and United are slashing thousands of departures over the four months ending September 15, to or from New York’s airfields, as well as at Reagan National in Washington. That could help reduce delays nationwide, since flight snafus at the Big Apple’s main airports—John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport—tend to reverberate around the country.

At those airports, space is so tight that carriers have to win rights to take off or land at a specific time, otherwise known as “slots.” But under a “use it or lose it” rule, airlines sometimes hang on to slots they don’t need, just to keep them out of the hands of competitors. Under the deal with the FAA, airlines that surrender slots during this trial period will get to reclaim them later.

The air traffic controller shortage is the new pilot shortage

It’s unclear how much difference the cuts will actually make, though, given that they were prompted by a much bigger problem: a shortage of air traffic controllers in the USA. The number of certified controllers is now hovering near a 30-year low, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, due in large part to cutbacks in recruitment and training during the pandemic. The shortage is particularly acute in the New York City area, where only 54 percent of air traffic controller positions are currently filled.

“Last year, we didn’t have enough pilots, and now with this controller shortage, I can envision some days when it’s going to be really tough. If you’ve got thunderstorms coming in, that could lead to tremendous delays,” McGee said. Of course, airlines have no control over the weather, “but last year what was unforgivable was that they allowed so many flights to be canceled at the last minute.”

Why summer 2023 will (hopefully) not be as bad as summer 2022

While air travel this summer looks like it will certainly still be pretty bad, there are reasons to be believe that it won’t be as bad as summer 2022. For one, despite surging travel demand, airlines are showing restraint in adding more flights than the system can manage.

While the total number of domestic flights overall in July 2023 is up 3.6 percent over July 2022, according to aviation data provider Cirium, the Big Three network carriers—American, Delta, and United—are holding their increases to under 2 percent from summer 2022. The number of seats airlines are flying, however, is up by around 9 percent over last year. That’s because airlines are replacing smaller jets on some routes with bigger planes to squeeze more capacity out of a system that’s pretty much maxed out, said Mike Arnot, a spokesperson for Cirium.

“The changes in capacity will help solve some problems,” said U.S. Travel’s Freeman. “I’m optimistic that [this summer] is going to look a lot more like Thanksgiving week and a lot less like the images we saw last summer.” Thanksgiving week 2022 was largely considered a success with minimal air travel issues during a busy holiday travel period.

What travelers can do to avoid air travel mishaps this summer

What can you do to prevent a travel meltdown from ruining your entire trip? World Nomad’s Tunnah offers the following tips.

Leave a day or two early. If you have anything scheduled at your destination you couldn’t afford to miss, build in at least a day of buffer time in case flights are canceled or delayed.

Carry-on if you can. Arriving at your destination on time but having your luggage take a detour is not the best way to start a trip.

Learn what you’re owed if things go awry. Bone up on consumer protection rules, both in the U.S and in the European Union and consider getting travel insurance that would cover a wide range of events, from labor strikes to hurricanes, such as “cancel for any reason” coverage.

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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