Airlines and tourist destinations expect huge crowds this summer as travel restrictions ease and fatigue from the pandemic overcomes lingering fears of catching COVID-19 while traveling.
Many forecasters believe that the number of travelers will match or even exceed the levels of the good old days before the pandemic. However, airlines have thousands fewer employees than in 2019, which has contributed to widespread flight cancellations at times.
People who are only now booking trips for the summer are experiencing the sticker shock.
According to travel data company Hopper, domestic airline fares are averaging more than $400 per round trip for the summer, 24% higher than at this point in 2019 before the pandemic and a whopping 45% higher than a year ago.
“The time to get cheap summer flights was probably three or four months ago,” says Scott Keyes, who runs website Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Tariffs have also increased internationally compared to 2019, but only by 10%. Fares to Europe are about 5% cheaper than before the pandemic — $868 for the average round trip, according to Hopper. Keyes said Europe is the best travel bargain out there.
Steve Nelson, of Mansfield, Texas, waited in line at a security checkpoint at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport this week ready to board a flight to Nice, France, with plans to attend a Formula 1 race in Monaco.
“I’ve decided it’s time to work on my bucket list,” Nelson said. “I hadn’t even thought of Monaco until this year.”
Though many countries have relaxed travel rules, there are still restrictions that add to the hassle factor. The United States, in particular, still requires a negative COVID-19 test within one day of flying into the country.
“We only noticed that a few days before we arrived here. We panicked to find somewhere to get tested,” said Jonny Dawe, a software developer from Bath, England, who was in Dallas for a conference – his first major trip since the pandemic began. “You have to check all the testing requirements for the countries you visit and you have to worry about catching the virus.”
Online spending for US flights fell in April after a hot March, but is still up 23% from spring 2019, mainly due to higher prices, according to Adobe Analytics.
Airlines are attributing the steeper fares to the price of kerosene, which roughly doubled from 2019. However, it is more than that. The number of flights has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, despite a sharp increase in travel demand.
“We have more travelers who want fewer seats, and each of those seats is going to be more expensive for airlines this summer because of kerosene,” says Hopper economist Hayley Berg.
When travelers reach their destination, they are greeted with hotel prices up about a third from last year. Hotels also fill up faster. Hotel companies blame the higher prices on the rising cost of supplies as well as workers in a tight job market.
Rental cars were hard to find and very expensive last summer, but that seems to have eased as rental companies rebuild their fleets. The nationwide average price is currently around $70 a day, according to Hopper.
Jonathan Weinberg, founder of a rental car buying site called AutoSlash, said vehicle prices and availability will vary widely. It won’t be as bad as last summer, but vehicle prices will still be “well above average if you can even find one” in Hawaii, Alaska and near destinations like national parks.
Even if you drive your own car, it still gets expensive. The national average for regular gasoline hit $4.60 a gallon Thursday — up from $6 in California. At these prices, some people are considering staying at home.
“You don’t really get used to $6 gas,” San Diego resident Juliet Ripley said of paying $46.38 to put 7.1 gallons in her Honda Civic. The single mother of two has no summer vacation plans other than an occasional trip to a nearby beach.
For those who love to travel, however, it is unclear whether airlines, airports, hotels and other tour operators can handle it.
In the United States, more than 2.1 million people board planes per day on average, about 90% of 2019 levels and a number that is sure to increase by several hundred thousand per day through July.
The US Transportation Security Administration has tapped nearly 1,000 checkpoint screeners who can move from one airport to another depending on where they are most needed.
“We are as well prepared as possible,” says TSA chief David Pekoske.
Airlines that paid employees to lay off when travel collapsed in 2020 are now scrambling to hire enough pilots, flight attendants and other workers. The four largest U.S. airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — had a combined workforce of about 36,000 fewer than before the pandemic in early 2022, down nearly 10%, despite aggressive hiring that began last year.
Pilots are particularly scarce at smaller regional airlines, which operate nearly half of all US flights under names like American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.
Airlines are cutting their summer flight schedules to avoid overworking their staff and last-minute flight cancellations. This week Delta cut about 100 flights per day, or 2%, from its July schedule and more than 150 flights per day on average, or 3%, in August. Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue previously reduced summer flights.
Cancellations aren’t limited to the US In the UK, easyJet and British Airways canceled many flights this spring due to staff shortages.
Air travel within Europe is expected to rebound to pre-pandemic levels this summer, although visitors from outside the region are likely to fall by 30% from 2019, according to a new report from the European Travel Commission. The group does not expect international travel to return to normal before 2025.
Russia’s war in Ukraine doesn’t appear to be affecting bookings for most of Europe, according to travel experts, but it will reduce the number of Russian and Ukrainian travelers, whose favorite destinations are Cyprus, Montenegro, Latvia, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania, the commission said. Russian tourists tend to be big spenders, so their absence will affect the tourism economy in these destinations.
Also largely missed: Chinese tourists, the world’s largest travel spenders, who remain largely constrained by their government’s “zero-COVID” strategy. Some European destinations report that the number of Chinese tourists has fallen by more than 90% since 2019.
– David Koenig, The Associated Press