Air travel is back, including all the things you hated


Air transport is coming back. The same goes for the things people hated.

Passenger numbers at U.S. airports hit pandemic records this weekend, with more than 1.7 million people passing through airport security on Friday and again on Sunday.

Frequent travelers like Tim Slabaugh aren’t thrilled. “We had this window at Covid where business travel was just wonderful,” said the representative for the medical supplies company, which has maintained its travel pace throughout the pandemic.

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“The airports themselves were empty,” he said. “Now it’s like someone has turned the switch back on.”

Many of the people who travel now are vacationers and “older people who have taken vaccines,” he said, rather than travel professionals. To get around obstacles like the shortage of rental cars, Mr Slabaugh said he resorted to tricks like reserving a car longer than necessary.

Fares are rising, the middle seats are no longer empty, and everything from parking lots to security lines is getting more and more crowded. Meanwhile, some airports are understaffed to keep up with demand, many airport restaurants are still closed or at limited capacity, some terminal seats remain blocked for social distancing reasons, and passengers are arguing with staff. airlines not to wear masks.

A scene from Tim Slabaugh’s trip to Raleigh-Durham Airport last week.


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Tim slabaugh

“It will be a very bumpy summer for the traveler,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of the Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry advisory group.

Air passenger traffic in the United States fell by more than 60% in 2020 compared to 2019, and the outlook was bleak at the start of this year. That started to change this spring as the pace of vaccinations picked up. Airlines and hotels say leisure bookings in the United States for this summer are almost back to their pre-pandemic pace.

Today, domestic flights are nearly 77% full, on average, according to the Airlines for America business group.

“I was really pampered during the pandemic,” said BP Perry, a political consultant who flew three or four times a week last year. Getting through airport security didn’t take more than five minutes, and he often had a row of seats to himself.

Now, some people seem to have forgotten how to travel, he said – neglecting to take out laptops or take off their shoes or trying to cram oversized bags into the overhead compartments. “It will be interesting this summer if things get back to normal,” said Perry. “I keep my fingers crossed that I don’t.”

Mr. Perry almost missed a recent flight to Washington, DC, from Atlanta because the security wait was so long, even with Clear, a service that speeds access through security lines.

Last year, customer satisfaction with North American airlines hit an all-time high, according to JD Power’s annual survey, with passengers benefiting from more flexible tickets, attentive service and empty middle seats.

Shauna Brown of Mobile, Ala., Is in conflict. As a travel consultant whose business helping plan romantic getaways and destination weddings shriveled up during the pandemic, she is relieved to see passengers return.

“It’s great for our industry to see no empty seats,” she said, but “selfishly I like an empty plane.”

For car rental companies, which sold part of their fleet to stay afloat, demand picked up “seemingly overnight” in March, and tight supplies resulted in higher prices, the week said. last Joe Ferraro, Managing Director of Avis Budget Group Inc. to analysts.

Miami International Airport Car Rental Center on April 12. Looks like the good old days.


Photo:

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

American Airlines Group Inc. of

Pleasure travel fares in the United States, which at the start of the year were half of pre-pandemic levels, have climbed to around 90% of that mark, said Vasu Raja, U.S. revenue director, in a call for results last month. United Airlines Holdings Inc.

said domestic leisure rates are starting to exceed 2019 prices for bookings starting in mid-June.

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Airlines have had a harder time planning, given the uncertain outlook, and passengers like Angela Flynn still have reverse trips.

Ms Flynn was booked to fly with Southwest Airlines Co.

from Raleigh, North Carolina, to New Orleans for a conference in July. Southwest told her last week that her nonstop flight would have a stopover and that she would arrive hours later than she originally expected, she said. She eventually was able to change reservations, but now has to leave at dawn.

“It’s boring,” she says, but after a year of Covid anxiety: “It’s just normal boredom. Isn’t that awesome?

A spokesperson for the Southwest said the airline was sorry for the inconvenience and felt it had finished fine-tuning its summer schedule and any further changes would likely be in response to increased demand.

Airports are still not as busy as they were before the pandemic. Most business travelers, who bring in a huge chunk of airline and hotel revenue, have yet to return, and many lucrative international markets are effectively closed.

McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, in February.


Photo:

John Locher / Associated press

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, companies don’t know how long the resumption of travel will last, and hiring has been a challenge, said Charlene Reynolds, assistant director of aviation. Almost half of the airport concessions remain closed.

Hiring at the Transportation Security Administration has been slow, despite the higher passenger volume expected this summer. The TSA has added 2,500 of the 6,000 screening officers it hoped to hire by the summer, Acting Administrator Darby LaJoye told a Congressional panel last week. The agency plans to hire 1,600 more over the next two months.

“As TSA actively works to minimize the impact on screening operations, passengers may experience longer wait times than they have experienced in the past year due to increased volume. passengers, ”a TSA spokesperson said.

Airlines are recalling pilots and flight attendants, in some cases years earlier than expected. “I think we’re all ready for this to be complicated,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during the company’s earnings call last month.

At Delta Air Lines Inc.,

Pilot training bottlenecks contributed to the shortcomings. The airline had to cancel more than 100 flights over Easter weekend, but said it fixed the issue and was ready for the summer. Citing a rapid increase in demand, the airline is asking Atlanta employees to participate and volunteer to help its short-staffed Sky Clubs, which cater for frequent flyers and first-class passengers. An airline spokesperson said this was not unusual during busy travel seasons.

It took more than one call to Delta and hours of waiting for Cynthia Traina to change her family’s reservation for an upcoming trip from San Francisco to Atlanta for a wedding. She gave up after waiting almost three hours, she said. On another attempt – after waiting three hours and 18 minutes – she was able to make the switch.

A Delta spokesperson said the airline was “increasing its staff resources and providing self-service options.”

Hal Berenson, a founder of a software start-up, was baffled when he arrived at the Denver airport to find it, he said, looking like it was the day before Thanksgiving. “The value of the shock was very high,” he said. “Where do these people come from?”

Write to Alison Sider at [email protected]

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