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Just as airlines are trying to get back to normal, new fears might keep many travelers off the jetway.
Given the rampant spread of COVID-19 variants and a spate of summer operational problems at many of the nation’s airlines, the answer may range from a flat-out “no,” to “maybe, if the circumstances are right.”
With a little more than a month to go in the summer travel season of 2021, more than a few would-be flyers seem to be hesitating, with some postponing or canceling their plans as a new surge of COVID-cases storms across the country.
AAA, the auto club, said that while it expects “travel volumes to remain high” during the Labor Day holiday, “some travelers are wondering if they should take that last summer trip or continue with their future travel plans.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the club notes, advises that “fully vaccinated people can travel domestically with little risk.” But for unvaccinated people, it’s best to delay travel plans.
Operational chaos at some airlines has hardly helped as carriers from Spirit Airlines of Miramar to Southwest to American Airlines all experienced cancellations and delays this summer due to staffing shortages, unavailable aircraft and that well-known summertime disrupter: bad weather.
Jay Starkman, founder and chief executive officer of Engage PEO of Fort Lauderdale, a human resources technology firm, drastically altered his family’s vacation plans. They took a trip between the time the COVID vaccines came out and when the variants erupted across the country.
Every year, he said, his family travels internationally for a vacation. He and his wife and two older children are vaccinated. But their 11-year-old is not, so that was the end of the overseas travel plan. They looked for a U.S. destination where the variant was not flaring “because we needed a vacation.”
In the end, they flew to Massachusetts — privately. “If the trip was scheduled next month, we would not have gone,” he said.
“It’s easy to talk about postponing travel because of airlines’ problems, but in reality, that’s hard to do,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, president and travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, a San Francisco research and advisory firm for the travel industry.
“If someone has requested time off for vacation, it may not be easy to change that,” he said. “Plus, there may be other factors that complicate this, such as kids returning to school.”
Changing plans have added to the difficulties of airlines, said Nick Ewen, senior editor of The Points Guy, a New York consumer travel advisory service. As a help to the consumer during the pandemic, American and Delta Air Lines waived their fees for changing flights.
“At the end of the day that does give the consumer the power to say. ‘you know, what? I don’t feel like taking this trip,’” Ewen said. “That has created another operational challenge. It becomes harder to forecast [passenger] loads and schedules.”
Now, carriers are changing schedules with minimal or no notice to consumers, leaving it up to travelers to constantly check flight schedules.
“Some may not notify [passengers] of dropping a leg. We’ve seen reports of that,” Ewen said. “You need to be your own advocate.”
This summer, Americans homebound by the pandemic were more than ready to hit the road, according to a survey by Triplt, the online travel company.
“Travel hit an apex this summer since the pandemic started,” said Jen Moyse, the company’s senior director of product. Starting with Memorial Day weekend, domestic flight bookings in TripIt were up 33% compared to 2019 and rose to 51% compared to 2019 for the Fourth of July holiday.
Moyse said a July survey of the company’s customers showed 82% of the respondents had traveled in the previous three months; 52% of them had taken a domestic flight.
Moyse believes the activity is a possible signal of a “continued desire to take a trip in the coming months. As of July, when we asked respondents when they would be ready to travel, those that were comfortable with a domestic flight increased from 80% in September to 89% in December.
But did the airlines spoil a good thing?
Industrywide, each carrier spent millions trying to allay the fears of consumers who worried they could contract COVID-19 either at 30,000 feet or while passing through an airport terminal. They installed better onboard air filtration systems and widely deployed disinfectants.
On the ground, airport authorities installed their own preventive measures.
But the pandemic did more than threaten the public health. It roiled airline finances as traffic plunged by 80% to 90%. The airlines grounded planes, sidelined workers and all but vacated airports.
Yet, the trip back toward pre-pandemic operations has been a bumpy ride as carriers struggled to meet the resurgence in customer demand. The upshot: surges in cancellations and delays.
“Just operationally, it’s a challenge for them right now,” said Ewen, of The Points Guy. “They had this huge surge in demand over the summer. They weren’t able to get their employees and planes back to meet the demand with as much flexibility as they’d like.”
Spirit and American blamed staffing shortages, technology problems and stormy weather.
Some airlines have rebounded better than others.
“We have fortified our staffing by completing all required recall pilot training, bringing back more than 3,000 team members from leaves — with thousands more flight attendants returning from leaves this fall,” American CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom said in a late July note to employees.
They said American, which maintains a massive U.S. and international hub in Miami, is hiring nearly 3,500 new employees throughout the operation, as well as 350 pilots this year, and more than 1,000 pilots and 800 flight attendants next year.
Spirit is still reeling from a two-week-long customer service disaster fueled by 2,000 flight cancellations. Its CEO, Ted Christie, publicly apologized and vowed to fix the problems,
Spirit under federal scrutiny
But while flight cancellations and delays have abated, the company is now being monitored by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“The Department is committed to protecting the rights of air travelers and is in contact with Spirit regarding its recent widespread flight cancellations and delays,” the agency said in an emailed statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
“The Department has reminded Spirit of its legal obligations, including its obligation to provide prompt refunds when it cancels or significantly changes a flight and the passenger chooses not to accept the alternative offered,” the statement said. “Spirit is also required to have and adhere to a customer service plan that identifies the services that the carrier provides to mitigate passenger inconveniences resulting from flight cancellations and misconnections.”
It also said it directed Spirit to “publish a clear statement” on its website about whether the airline will provide hotel accommodations, arrange for ground transportation, provide meal vouchers and sleeping facilities and arrange for air transportation on another carrier.
As of Thursday, a link to the statement appeared at the top of the website.
The agency said it is monitoring Spirit’s actions “and reviewing complaints that it receives against the carrier to ensure that consumers’ rights are not violated.” It pledged “to act if the airline fails to comply with the applicable law.
No one from Spirit responded to a request for comment about the Department of Transportation statement.
Less affected by the summertime turmoil is Delta, once the predominant carrier at Fort Lauderdale. The airline did not lay off employees during the pandemic. For the third year in a row, the airline was named No. 1 in customer service in a survey by The Points Guy, which rated the nation’s top 10 major airlines in reliability, experience, loyalty, and costs and reach.
Ironically, Spirit, which came in at No. 8 overall, scored highest in the reliability category — before it was overwhelmed by its cancellation troubles.
“Though it’s been getting better, Spirit’s operation is still far from reliable,” said Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research.
“I would expect that within two to three weeks, Spirit should be back to a close-to-normal level of operational reliability,” he said. “People who have flexibility and are booked on Spirit flights during the next three weeks may want to postpone their trips. However, if the airfare is more expensive, it’s possible the airline may charge the fare difference.”
While several of the airlines straighten out their operations, COVID should remain a top-of-mind task for any travelers who insist they need to leave town.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel asked three medical experts from three of the region’s medical schools for advice on what leisure and business travelers should consider so long as the variant remains prevalent.
“Every traveler should be doing a check list prior to getting that ticket or even getting in the car,” said Dr. Eneida O. Roldan, chief executive officer of the FIU Health Care Network.
“The first line would be, ‘Am I vaccinated or not? What is my age group?” Roldan asked. “Even if you are vaccinated you have to look at your medical condition. I’ve seen even with a vaccination you may not have built up the immunity as much as another individual who does not have an underlying disease.”
The CDC recommends delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated, because travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19, she added. There are specific recommendations for unvaccinated individuals, which include testing pre- and post- travel, masking and quarantining after you return.
Scope out your destination
“You are responsible for understanding and following all airline and destination requirements related to travel, mask wearing, testing, or quarantine, which may differ from U.S. requirements,” Drowos said. “Failure to do so may mean that you are denied entry to your destination and need to return home.”
Ask yourself: is this trip necessary?
But he warned, “You just have to be aware of the risk going into.”
“There is some fatigue setting in among all of us,” Vieweg said. “We all want to go on with our lives. Nothing in our current situation is black and white. You have to personally look at your own risk. Am I little bit older? Do I have cancer? Is the travel necessary? Is it really worth the risk?”