Will Flight Cancellations Disrupt Holiday Travel?

Holiday travel is reaching prepandemic levels. Will airlines be able to keep up?

Will Flight Cancellations Disrupt Holiday Travel?

More travelers could mean more problems in the skies this holiday season.

Photo by SynthEx/Shutterstock

As travelers begin to head out for the holidays, the question on many minds is: Will the mass cancellations of summer and fall continue into the busy holiday travel season?

At the very least, planes will be packed: Air travel volume this Thanksgiving approached prepandemic levels, with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) having screened just under 21 million passengers during the 10-day holiday period. And the agency said that it expects “high travel volumes” to continue into the December holidays.

AAA, which tracks all modes of transportation, reported that travel by plane during the year-end holidays is anticipated to register a whopping 184 percent increase, or nearly double, over 2020, when many people opted to stay home or drive rather than fly.

For air travelers, the thought of having to navigate crowded terminals and fight for bin space on completely full planes is nothing to celebrate. The biggest wild card, experts say, is whether the rash of cancellations and delays that roiled air travel over the summer and into the fall will affect holiday travel as well.

The good news is that if the Thanksgiving holiday period could be viewed as a test for the upcoming Christmas and New Year crush, there were no mass flight cancellation incidents reported in late November.

But it’s hard to forget the troubling signs from summer and fall: In late October, American Airlines scrubbed more than 1,900 flights over a single weekend due to what the carrier described as a perfect storm of bad weather and staffing shortages. That followed on the heels of a massive disruption at Southwest earlier in the month, which saw 2,000 flights canceled due to another string of setbacks including air traffic control outages. Added to that is the uncertainty over how many pilots and flight attendants are ready to work again.

“It is the coincidence of all these factors coming together, and at great intensity,” Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest, told AFAR.

Flight snafus have become more common this year as major airlines face growing demand. While some delays can be attributed to severe weather, staffing shortages are also throwing a wrench into the system, airline sources say. And since flights are operating close to 90 percent full at peak times (such as during the holidays and weekends), it can be more difficult to get rebooked if something goes wrong.

A shortage of pilots, many of whom chose to take early retirement when the pandemic hit, “will continue to be an issue” for some time, according to Helane Becker, an airline analyst at New York–based securities firm Cowen.

As a result, the major airlines will need to hire between 35,000 to 40,000 new pilots by the end of this decade—“a huge number,” Becker said at a recent Phocuswright travel technology conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Other skilled job positions, such as licensed aircraft mechanics, are also going begging, Becker noted, which is contributing to airport delays.

While major domestic airlines are now actively hiring flight crew, some observers say they shouldn’t have loaded up their schedules so quickly until they had adequate staffing. “If you publish a schedule, you’re supposed to adhere to that schedule,” says William McGee, an aviation expert and author of the book Attention All Passengers.

Avoid getting stranded at the airport with these tips

There are some ways to reduce your chances of being affected by flight delays and cancellations. Here are some tips and tricks from experts.

Book the earliest flight out you can. “The first flight of the day is more important now than ever,” McGee says. “You should book that 6 a.m. departure,” as delays tend to pile up later in the day.

Try to take a nonstop over a connection if you can, even if that means an increase in airfare. As McGee notes,“Why double your chances of a problem if you can avoid it?”

Arrive at the airport earlier than usual. That’s because full flights mean any disruption can have a wider impact on operations. “The higher the load factors go, the more the system implodes when things go wrong,” McGee adds.

Southwest also said that it’s urging fliers to get to the airport earlier than usual and to prepare for crowded conditions—at all stages of the journey. “Travelers are facing unforeseen delays such as scarce parking and long checkpoint lines, long before they can get to a gate,” the airline says.

Build in an added cushion if your flight happens to be on one of the busiest days of the holiday season. During December and January, the heaviest travel day will be Thursday, December 23, according to flight booking site Hopper, followed by Sunday, January 2.

Hopper also recommends flying in a day early for a special event: advice many travelers appear to be following this year.

Know your rights as a flier

Airlines don’t guarantee their flight schedules, and travelers need to keep that in mind when planning their itineraries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which publishes a “fly rights” manual on its website.

Airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems that are deemed beyond the company’s control, like foul weather. They are also not required to refund passengers when the passengers initiate the cancellation or flight change. Compensation is required by U.S. law, however, when passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems.

Each airline has its own policy about what it will do for delayed passengers, from providing snacks to covering the cost of a hotel stay. If you’re not offered any help, the squeaky wheel approach can often yield results.

What to do if your flight is canceled

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight that has available seats. As airline technology has improved, you can often take care of this process by using your carrier’s app on your smartphone or a self-serve kiosk if you’re at the airport. Some airlines are going a bit further: American says that it’s giving stranded passengers a special number that it claims will connect them to a reservations agent in less than 30 seconds.

Remember: You’re entitled to a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket, if the airline cancels your trip, not you.

This story was originally published on July 8, 2021, and has been updated to include current information.

>>Next: Our Guide to Last-Minute Holiday 2021 Travel

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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