Jun 1, 2022 - Technology

Memorial Day airline hell was a painful preview of summer

Illustration of an overhead panel on a plane with a dollar sign, storm cloud, and clock
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If last weekend was any indication, we're in for a turbulent summer for air travel, with staff shortages and severe weather interrupting our long-delayed getaways.

Why it matters: The summer of revenge travel is pushing up against the limits of airlines' capability to recover from the two-year pandemic. Passengers should be prepared for fewer choices, higher prices and more delays.

Driving the news: U.S. airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights over the Memorial Day weekend, according to FlightAware.

  • Bad weather in Florida, New York and the mid-Atlantic was a factor, along with air traffic control and staffing issues, airlines say.

It's not just Americans suffering through travel hell. Passengers in Europe are waiting for hours to get through security or immigrations too.

  • The security line at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, one of the world's busiest, stretched so far out of the building over the weekend that Dutch airline KLM temporarily halted new reservations. The airport even urged passengers to stay home.

Flashback: We've seen airline meltdowns before, as carriers struggled to meet demand that bounced back more quickly than expected in the summer and fall of 2021.

  • This year, airlines have had plenty of time to prepare, even expanding their schedules ahead of a forecasted summer 2022 travel surge.

Yes, but: Labor shortages across the board — pilots, gate agents, baggage handlers, ground crews — are causing carriers to rethink those plans.

  • Almost all major U.S. airlines have proactively cut their schedules, some by as much as 15%, acknowledging that their operations are already stretched to the brink.
  • COVID-19 outbreaks among airline and airport workers are exacerbating the staffing crisis.

Between the lines: It doesn't take long for a staff shortage in one airport to ripple across the entire country.

  • If there aren't enough ground workers in Cleveland, for example, to unload bags and service a plane, the aircraft will be stuck there, instead of heading to its next stop in, say, San Francisco.
  • People waiting for a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles will then be delayed too.
  • Flight crews have limits on the amount of time they can be on duty without a rest, and sometimes they "time out" during such delays. Unless another crew can take over, those time-outs can force cancellations.
  • Airlines "don't have the bench crew that they used to," Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Skift's Airline Weekly, tells Axios.

Compounding the labor shortage is that more people are heading to or passing through areas that are seeing more severe weather, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • In Florida, for example, traffic is 150% to 170% higher at some airports compared to pre-pandemic levels.
  • The Sunshine State is also seeing more frequent thunderstorms, causing "significantly more weather delays in the area than normal," per the FAA.

The bottom line: There are a few things you can do to minimize headaches, The Points Guy CEO Brian Kelly tells Axios.

  • Book direct flights whenever possible: "A 45-minute layover is just a recipe for disaster," he says.
  • Enroll in TSA PreCheck or Global Entry to save time at security or customs.
  • If your flight is canceled, seek help from your credit card provider, which could be faster than dealing with an overburdened airline.
  • Take advantage of technology like self-tagged bags, facial recognition security systems or CLEAR's new security reservation lane to speed through the lines.

Editor's note: An outdated reference to long security lines in Austin, Texas has been removed from this story.

Go deeper