You’ve heard the warning every year about holiday travel. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that it’s likely become background noise to you: Get to the airport early, be patient, blah, blah, blah.
This is the year to actually heed those warnings. Listen, I’m not a boy who normally cries wolf or says that the sky is falling, but on a recent non-holiday, nondescript Saturday morning, Terminal C at Logan looked like nothing I had seen before. The queue for the baggage drop alone resembled a conga line from hell. Every self check-in kiosk was occupied. The line for security was akin to people crowding for a lifeboat on the Titanic. Please, get yourself TSA PreCheck, there was no line at PreCheck. In summation, I’m crying wolf, and the wolf is real.
Let me be clear, dear reader. People are traveling again. They’re partying like it’s 2019. But while the travelers have returned, staffing levels have not. This is not a drill: Reserve your rental cars ASAP. Get to the airport early. Read all the details of COVID-19 testing requirements for restaurants, bars, amusement parks, stadiums, or any country on your itinerary, and then read them again. Read the cancellation policy for your airline. Hopefully your experience will be smoother than Nicole Kidman’s forehead, but just in case, you need to be ready.
“It may sound cliche, but one of the most important things to pack this holiday season is your patience,” said Brian Hoyt, head of global communications at Tripadvisor. “You know the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving and the Sunday after Thanksgiving are some of the busiest air travel days of the year, that will certainly be the case again. But we’re really going through this period of a tourism reset. We’re going to have a lot more chaotic days this season.”
One sector that has been hit particularly hard by staffing levels is the airlines. American Airlines and Southwest were both recently hammered by a combination of bad weather and staffing shortages. American announced last week that it is increasing pay for flight attendants to avert more cancellations and to appease angry passengers.
“With the airlines there’s recently been a lot of issues around staffing, and there are challenges there,” said Jonathan Kletzel, transportation and logistics leader for PwC. “I think that’s an addressable problem. Can it be addressed in time for the holidays? That’s a big question mark.”
According to Michael Taylor, practice lead for travel intelligence at J.D. Power, airline staffing shortages aren’t simply a matter of hiring more people.
“It’s rehiring and retraining,” Taylor said. “If a pilot hasn’t flown an aircraft in a year, they’re not going to just hop back into a 737 and merrily go down the runway. The airline and the FAA would like to check them out again, but they don’t build that many flight simulators. So you’ve got a backlog of those. It’s not as rigorous, but it’s the same thing with airline crew.”
It’s a perfect storm of staffing shortages and increased travel demand. A survey of 1,800 travelers from OAG, a company that provides flight information, intelligence, and analytics for airports, found that passenger counts were up 81 percent from June to August compared with the same period in 2020. The company anticipates the trend will continue through the holidays. Zeta Global, a marketing technology company, found that travel in 2021 is up 94 percent over 2020. But the 1,000 people surveyed by Zeta said that driving will still be their primary means of transportation for this holiday season, and that they’d still prefer to stay close to home.
Also, remember there isn’t simply an increase in domestic travel, but now you’ll be facing off against international travelers as well.
You have a few options in the event your flight is canceled — such as sitting in a corner at the airport and crying — but experts recommend taking a more productive approach.
“I’ve actually given this advice to my friends and colleagues,” Kletzel said. “First of all, download and familiarize yourself with the digital apps and the airline websites. Because if something does go wrong, the odds of being able to get in-person assistance is going to be fairly limited, so digital is going to be key.”
After getting to know your airline digitally, he said to start looking at the cancellation and change policies of airlines, hotels, and car rentals. He also recommends, if possible, buying status with an airline.
“I know it’s an additional cost,” Kletzel said. “But if you’re generally concerned about this, having status with an airline then puts you at the front of the line when there is a cancellation for the booking accommodation.”
Another important way to sidestep cancellations is to book the first flight of the day. Bad weather often creates a domino effect, and cancellations build throughout the day. Other simple steps can help save your sanity, such as making sure all of your devices are charged before you get to the airport, given the scarcity of power outlets in some terminals.
No matter how perfectly everything is planned, it doesn’t hurt to have a back-up plan. Kletzel even suggests a driving back-up plan. If your destination can be reached in 6, 8, or 10 hours by car, sometimes it’s more efficient to drive than fly if flight cancellations are stretched over days.
But (and this is where I’ll again cry wolf again, and mean it), remember that rental cars are not as plentiful as they were pre-pandemic. The advice from experts is to reserve your rental car even before you book the hotel. Don’t put it off until the last minute. Another tip — and rental car companies will not like this — but book from more than one company just to make sure. There’s no penalty for bailing on a rental.
“The shortage is acute in destination markets,” Taylor said. “There’s a shortage of cars, as we all know. Companies sold a lot of their fleets during the height of the pandemic because they wanted to conserve cash. But then demand came back faster than anybody expected. It’s not really anybody’s fault.”
Because you’ll potentially be facing large crowds out there, and COVID-19 loves large crowds, is it worth traveling at all?
“I think people need to travel,” said Dr. Teresa Bartlett, senior medical officer of Sedgwick. She advises companies and institutions on medical strategies and best practices. “They need it for their mental health. They need to see their family and their friends and have vacations and experience life.”
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask over your mouth and nose, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer.
But first and foremost, just be nice to people. Don’t start punching fellow passengers or flight attendants. Don’t push, don’t yell, and smile a lot.
“Be nice to the employees,” Kletzel said. “People are just trying to do a job. In general, the nicer you are to the staff at the hotels and the employees at the airport, the better your chances of coming through the experience feeling good about the holidays.”