What in the world is going on with air travel these days? That is a question I get daily. Flights are getting canceled or postponed almost as frequently as they are getting booked. Here is my take on the situation. In the end, the word for traveling today is…patience.
2020 was a unique year in travel. It was a unique year, period. As the world went into lock down mode due to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic, the travel industry slowed to a crawl. The worldwide pandemic effected all corners of the earth and virtually all industries, but none were hit harder than the travel industry. By the end of 2020, with severe limitations to travel still in place, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that international tourist arrivals declined by 74 percent compared to the previous year. As the market declined, so did services. No need to fly empty planes, so flights were cut or reduced. Resorts were shut down, or at best forced to have reduced occupancy. Unfortunately, as with any business, the largest expense is personnel. So travel vendors cut back personnel. Call centers reduced employees, and those remaining worked from home. As a travel agent during the pandemic, income came to a screeching halt. It was nearly impossible to take a vacation during a worldwide lockdown.
Why am I talking about 2020? That’s in the past. I’m getting there… Hang on. Be patient (there’s that word again)…. Enter 2021. The COVID vaccine is being distributed. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that over 172 million Americans, or about 67% of the adult population, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. After over a year of quarantine, the pandemic concerns seem to finally be on the decline.
In fact, in 2021 people were finally tired of staying home and started traveling again. And when travel opened up, it flooded the market. People began venturing out in droves. It was like opening the starting gates at the Kentucky Derby. I was recently in Mexico at the Cancun International Airport and it was busier than I have ever seen it, even pre-pandemic. By the way, CUN is one of the most informative, friendliest airports I have visited. Feel free to ask me why. Here is the explanation for the airline woes, according to the experts (and by expert, I mean me and my opinion). With the renewed vigor of travel, vendors began scrambling to accommodate. Dust off those planes that were parked for a year. Get those air conditions working in those resort rooms that have been vacant for over a year. Gentlemen, start your engines!
Prices immediately skyrocketed for air travel. On my recent trip to Mexico, a friend booked his flights early and got round trip flights from Houston to Cancun for $250 each. Two days later I tried to book the exact same flights. There were still seats, but the price went up to $750 each (300% increase in 2 days!). They did come down a little later, but still were about 200% more than the original price.
As airlines scrambled to get you going and opened up their flights again, they have to predict how many people will be on a given flight. Remember, they are still short-staffed too...Gotta get those employees back. Hence, booked flights may or may not take off, depending on passengers AND employees. Again, they can’t afford to fly a plane with a handful of people on it (well, actually they don’t have to anymore). So when that happens, they start to cancel a flight and combine it with another one. In some cases, it could be just cancelled all together, so they put you on a competing airline which has its own set of problems. This has created huge issues within the travel industry. If you have a connecting flight to catch, and your starting flight is delayed, you may not make it. Then you have to be rebooked on another flight. If you have a resort destination and you’re your flight is delayed a day, who eats that one day of the reservation? A friend actually arrived at the airport two hours ahead of her flight as suggested, and received a message her flight was cancelled. She was rescheduled the next day, so she went home to try again tomorrow. My own flight to Denver in August has changed three times since we booked it. Fortunately, they are only minor changes.
To compound the problem, call centers are still scrambling to get customer service reps back online. With all the changes going on this has created a huge backlog. You can be on hold for what seems like an eternity waiting to reschedule a flight. Hold times are typically running 2-8 hours!
So what am I saying? Don’t travel? It sounds pretty bad. No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s time to get out and take that vacation. As it is said, “This too shall pass.” It’s not as bad as it seems and things will get better as the industry sorts this mess out. In fact, I see things already starting to improve. If patience isn’t your virtue, then perhaps a staycation like a camping trip in the mountains would be more up your alley until they iron things out. Unmet expectation is one of biggest causes of disappointment. Just know going into the trip planning that your flight may be delayed. Here are a few pointers to get you through the uncertainty of the day:
1. Use direct flights where possible. This will keep you from missing that connecting flight.
2. Give yourself plenty of time at the airport. It can be a little chaotic right now. Lines are longer than usual. Have your documents ready. Don’t be “that guy” on your phone and holding up the line digging out your passport and boarding pass.
3. Buy the insurance. I used to never buy travel insurance before the pandemic. But with all of the uncertainty of the times, it is crazy to not buy it. It’s just like car insurance. You hope you never need it, but if you do you’re sure glad you have it. If you are set on not buying insurance, know what the airline’s cancelation policy is. Many have enhanced their policies to make it more convenient to cancel, but very few will pay you in cash. It is typically a credit. Also, know that refunds are taking up to 90 days to process.
4. USE A TRAVEL AGENT. Come on…you had to see that coming. Seriously, would you represent yourself in court? Now’s not the time to represent yourself in travel either. Get someone who knows the industry. TAs are paid by the vendor and not you, so typically it costs you nothing. I still don’t understand why people don’t use them. Find someone (oh, let’s say…H&K Travel) that knows the industry. If something goes wrong, you will want someone to be your advocate, or at least someone to sit on hold for 4 hours to fix your issues. A good TA will know what insurance you need (if any), how to reschedule your flight, or process your refund.
5. Be patient and flexible. Don’t ruin your vacation being mad. It won’t change things. Don’t get frustrated with that gate person or that call center person that just got that job. He/She has nothing to do with canceling your flight and frankly is probably more frustrated than you are dealing with all of those upset passengers.
Well, that's my take. As always, travel safe. If you're ready to go somewhere, let us know. We are here to help.