Holiday travel is somehow even more uncertain than a year ago after a summer of airline turbulence

Dallas travel agent Alex Ramsey is getting questions daily from customers uncertain about booking holiday trips.

“Are Americans allowed to travel to Europe?”

“Will hotels and restaurants have enough employees?”

And the newest query brought on by recent turbulence: “Will my flight be delayed or canceled?”

“I’m telling people that the first thing they need to pack is their patience,” said Ramsey, president of All Aboard Travel. “If you are a type-A personality that needs everything to go perfectly, you will run into trouble.”

Even after a summer of packed airplanes, flight cancellations and face mask battles, airlines are preparing their biggest flight schedules in nearly two years while also scrambling to replenish staffing levels and amid employee pushback over government-required vaccine mandates.

And gone are the perks of flying during a pandemic. Prices will be higher and planes will be more packed than they were a year ago.

An American Eagle and American Airlines planes make their way toward the runway before taking off at DFW International Airport.

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It’s a backdrop that’s giving travelers pause, especially with the chaos of Columbus Day weekend fresh in their memories. That’s when Dallas-based Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights, citing weather and staffing issues while stranding travelers at airports around the country. It cost the airline $75 million in lost revenue.

The holiday travel season is typically more stressful, with planes loaded with leisure travelers eager to arrive at destinations on time and winter storms looming as a constant threat.

“You do have to wonder if these airlines are prepared for the holidays when there could be significant problems with weather and pressure is high over a short period of time,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.

Passengers wait in line to rebook their canceled American Airlines flight in Terminal D at DFW Airport Friday, October 1, 2021. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Passengers wait in line to rebook their canceled American Airlines flight in Terminal D at DFW Airport Friday, October 1, 2021. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)(Tom Fox)

Are airlines prepared?

The airline and travel industry is anticipating a 2021 holiday season that will be much bigger than last year’s, but still down slightly from the 2019 holidays.

Southwest’s flight schedule is about 12% smaller than it was in 2019.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines is planning to put more than 6,400 flights in the air during its busiest day this season, Nov. 28, the Sunday following Thanksgiving, according to Diio by Cirium. That’s only about 5% fewer flights than it had in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet airline executives spent the last two weeks trying to convince travelers and investors that flight delays and cancellations plaguing the summer and fall months won’t be a repeat occurrence during the holidays.

Southwest Airlines said Thursday that it will further reduce its upcoming travel schedule — fallout from being forced to cancel more than 2,000 flights earlier this month because of weather and air traffic control backups during a single afternoon in Florida. Southwest said it had relied on staffing models that it used before the pandemic.

“We had 15,000 people that were out on leave so an assumption I made was that we were going to call them and say ‘OK, it’s time to come back,’ and they are going to show up and everything was going to be just like it was,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said. “And it’s just not.”

Aggressive flight schedules to capitalize on consumer demand can push airlines to a breaking point when all doesn’t go to plan. Southwest Airlines’ Columbus Day weekend schedule was its busiest since the pandemic began and the Florida-centered problems resulted in pilots and flight crews being out of sync with subsequent flights.

That meltdown was followed by rumors that pilots had walked off the job to protest a White House mandate to require COVID-19 vaccinations for federal contractors such as Southwest Airlines. Both the airline and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association denied any attempt by pilots to disrupt flights. However, the union has sued the airline in federal court to stop the mandate.

The CEOs at Southwest and American spent last week trying to assure employees that they wouldn’t be fired if they weren’t vaccinated, at least as long as they sought an exemption for religious or medical purposes.

“We are not going to let this disrupt any of our customers’ travel, especially during the busy holiday season,” Kelly said.

American Airlines President Robert Isom said demand is strong from passengers.

“We’re getting ready for the holiday season and we expect a lot of passengers and tremendous pent-up demand, especially as vaccinations take hold [and] infection rates decline,” Isom said. “We’re going to be ready. We’re doing our best to make sure that we have the right people in the right places at the right time.”

Passengers look for information on their flights on Oct. 10 at Dallas Love Field.
Passengers look for information on their flights on Oct. 10 at Dallas Love Field. (Julie March / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Airfares and labor shortages

Travelers could be looking at a far different experience than last year.

Some Christmastime airfares are approaching what they were in 2019, said Adit Damodaran, an economist with travel website Hopper.

This year, the average roundtrip ticket for flying within the U.S. is selling for about $300 for Thanksgiving and $390 for Christmas, according to Hopper. That’s compared to 2020, when tickets were $245 at Thanksgiving and $250 at Christmas. Roundtrip tickets in 2019 were about $335 at Thanksgiving and $390 at Christmas.

That means this year’s fares are about 55% higher than last year, when prices hit the lowest point in decades due to weak customer demand.

“Things have really taken off in the last few weeks with the decrease in cases from the delta variant,” Damodaran said. “The best time to buy is usually before Halloween, before November starts.”

After vaccination rates took off in spring, more people grew comfortable with traveling over the summer months, said Erin Francis-Cummings, president of consumer research firm Destinations Analysts.

Now they’re ready to get back on planes again, she said.

“Connecting with family and friends is still the driver for the holidays,” she said. “It’s heart-warming to see that people still need one another and those connections are so powerful that they overcome some of the other worries.”

Holiday travel will be focused on domestic destinations, mostly people visiting friends and family. Once travelers arrive at their destinations, they’re likely to encounter other pandemic-related problems.

Hotels and restaurants are understaffed, said Ramsey, the Dallas travel agent. “You just can’t expect the kind of service you had before.”

Ramsey estimates that 50% or more of travelers are delaying trips, particularly major vacations.

“Before the delta variant spike, people were planning trips for Christmas, but then they started canceling in September,” she said. “It’s going to take time, maybe years, because this is the new normal. This isn’t going away.”

An attendant checks in passengers for a Southwest Airlines flight in Portland, Maine, during an October weekend that saw the carrier cancel several thousand flights.

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October’s cancellation meltdown costs Southwest Airlines $75 million

Southwest’s operational challenges earlier this month cost the company $75 million in revenue, the result of canceling more than 2,000 flights over Columbus Day weekend.Dallas-based Southwest Airlines said it spent some $75 million on “customer refunds and gesture of goodwill,” a bigger loss in revenue than it logged for the lingering effects of the COVID-19 delta variant in the month, which was $40 million.

This article first appeared on Airline News, global aviation community’s primary source of news, data, insight, knowledge and expertise.

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