Airlines are predicting another busy summer for travel, but this year could bring key changes from the chaotic 2022 summer vacation season.
After a year marked by sky-high demand, expensive fares, cancellations and delays, more typical air travel experiences could be in sight for flyers, industry observers said. Airlines in many cases have created flight schedules they hope they can more reliably operate with their available staff. Demand and domestic airfare, although still high, are likely to even out.
But the upcoming summer travel season won’t be entirely without challenges. Demand for international flights has skyrocketed as flyers feel more comfortable traveling to Europe and Asia, and overseas flight prices are also rising. And airlines are continuing to face staffing pressures.
“We’ve learned a lot over the last year,” American Airlines CEO Robert Isom told analysts during a first-quarter earnings call in late April. “Let’s face it. Summer 2022 was pretty rocky.”
Flight delays and cancellations are always high in the summer, but disruptions are expected to be nowhere near as prevalent this summer as they were in 2022, said Hayley Berg, lead economist for the travel app Hopper. Airlines overscheduled last summer, but since then have hired employees and created more manageable flight plans, she said.
“I expect the normal level of disruption, and not the incredible highs we saw last year,” she said.
Among the challenges airlines contended with in the summer of 2022 were staffing limitations at their own companies, in airports and in air traffic control towers, just as travelers were eager to get back out after pandemic closures. Airlines have been facing a pilot shortage, and have also raced to hire thousands of people to work in maintenance, at airports and in other roles.
But staffing remains a challenge, even as airlines are flying more this summer. Several airlines agreed to reduce schedules in New York this summer at the request of the FAA, which has a severe shortage of controllers at a key facility on Long Island.
Southwest Airlines executives said in their first-quarter earnings call they have underused planes because they cannot hire enough pilots. Later in the year they expect that problem to flip to a shortage of planes, because of Boeing aircraft delivery delays, they said.
Southwest in the first part of the year was still recovering from the busy December holiday travel period, when the carrier canceled thousands of flights as it struggled to catch up after a winter storm, and its scheduling software couldn’t keep up with the airline’s complex flight network once the weather-related cancellations started rolling in.
Experiences like that, last summer’s challenges and high airfares can leave a bad taste in travelers’ mouths, said Katy Nastro, spokeswoman for the travel company Going. But this summer looks to be an improvement, she said.
Airlines, for their part, are projecting strong demand from travelers. Chicago-based United is projecting its busiest Memorial Day weekend in more than a decade, with nearly 2.9 million travelers expected to fly with the carrier between May 25 and May 30. Friday, May 26, is expected to be the busiest day of the holiday period, and O’Hare International Airport is expected to be one of United’s three busiest airports that weekend.
American Airlines expects July 28 to be its busiest day of the summer, when it estimates it will operate 6,000 departures.
“It’s not as strong as ‘22, when you really saw this ‘revenge travel’ come back, especially on the leisure side,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in the company’s first-quarter earnings call in April. “But the demand is very strong, and it’s strong across the board.”
Demand is particularly strong for international travel. At United, international flying this summer will make up 46% of the carrier’s capacity, compared with 43% in 2019.
That means airfare for passengers is likely to be a mixed bag. The average price for a domestic flight this summer is about $300, which is up from 2019 but down 19% from last summer’s high prices, according to Hopper.
But prices for international flights are “incredibly high,” Berg said. Fares to Europe are up 37% from both 2022 and pre-pandemic prices, and airfare to Asia is up 60% from 2019, the most recent comparable year, she said.
Driving that trend in part is pent-up demand for international travel, said Kayla Inserra, consumer travel expert at travel company Kayak. Even as domestic travel roared back in 2022, international travel remained more difficult, and now that restrictions have eased flyers are looking to get back out.
The travel trends could bring good news for Chicago. The city is in the top 10 most-searched domestic destinations, according to both Hopper and Kayak.
The summer travel season comes as some of the largest airlines operating out of Chicago are contending with pressure from pilots’ unions. Pilots at Southwest Airlines voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, and United Airlines pilots have recently taken to picket lines as they push for a new contract.
The pilots are unlikely to strike during the busy summer travel season, however. Federal law makes it difficult for unions to conduct strikes in the airline industry, and the last walkout at a U.S. carrier was more than a decade ago.
Garth Thompson, who chairs United’s branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, said pilots at that carrier have been negotiating a new contract for nearly five years. They are seeking quality-of-life improvements, stronger rules governing work reassignments, and pay raises, he said.
At Southwest Airlines, union President Casey Murray has said the union didn’t take the authorization vote lightly, but customers should “be prepared for the path ahead and make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.” He blasted the “lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization.”
Southwest, in a statement also issued earlier in May, said the authorization vote has no impact on the carrier’s scheduled operations, and that the airline was “staffed and prepared to welcome travelers for their summer travel plans.”
American Airlines pilots also voted to authorize a strike, but on Friday they and the carrier announced they had reached an agreement in principle on a new contract. The agreement must be finalized and voted upon by union members, but the existence of a proposal removes some of the frustration at the organization, said union spokesman Dennis Tajer.
“This calms the high seas for the moment, and we hope that persists if the membership approves this,” he said.
American pilots had been pushing in part for changes to flight schedules that the union said would allow for more advance planning, better work-life balance and more reliable operations by the airline.
Tajer said details about the agreement and proposed pay increases hadn’t yet been released, but negotiators believed it met the demands of pilots. The proposal also recognizes that Delta Air Lines, which raised pay rates by 34% over four years in an agreement reached earlier this year, set the market rate for pilot pay, he said.
In a statement, American Airlines executives said pilots and other staff “deserve to be paid well and competitively,” and noted the contract “provides our pilots with pay and profit sharing that match the top of the industry with improved quality-of-life provisions.”
Over the years, airline workers have conducted job actions that fell short of a strike but disrupted flights anyway. A federal judge fined the American Airlines pilots’ union $45 million for a 1999 sickout that crippled the airline’s operations, although the amount was later reduced. In 2019, a federal judge ordered unions representing American’s aircraft mechanics to stop what the airline termed an illegal work slowdown.
Thompson, with United, said pilots don’t plan to cause operational disruptions this summer, but would continue picketing and could vote on authorizing a strike if negotiations didn’t progress.
“We’re certainly not happy with the pace and the position we’re at with negotiations and how long we’ve been negotiating, but we do not intend to take that out on our passengers,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed.