Air Travel Feeling A Bit Rocky? It's the Realities of Traveling in 2021, Experts Say

Huge travel demand putting strain on airlines to keep up with challenges as air passengers return to the skies in full force

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As more people fly for the first time since the pandemic, they're getting hit with some harsh realities of what it's like to travel in 2021.

Travel headaches like cancellations, delays and higher costs are becoming the norm as travel demand surges faster than experts were expecting.

Travelers like Michelle Dion have pondered taking a break from flying for a while despite just getting back into the traveling again.

“After this trip, I don’t know if I want to do any traveling for quite some time given all of the difficulties they’ve been having,” said Dion, who was trying to fly out of Dallas with her husband to see family during the Southwest Airlines delays earlier this week. “It sounds like it’s across all airlines, not just Southwest specific. In addition to the complications with COVID, it’s just uncomfortable for everybody. I might not travel again until the holidays.”

She was just one of the thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers dealing with major cancellations and delays after two days of technical issues this week.

And she's right – experts say there is a huge strain on the entire airlines industry right now, no matter who you fly with or where you go.

"The dam has burst on the demand for travel," said Rick Seaney,  a Dallas-based travel expert and CEO of travel analytics firm 3Victors and “This is a vaccine bubble. Everybody really likes to have the vaccines. They’ve done a great job of getting people millions of people to feel comfortable enough to get back on a plane again.”

He said travel is getting close to pre-pandemic levels and while that’s a welcome sight for airlines, it has been a huge challenge to keep up with.

“Airlines lost a lot of staff either through attrition, moving to other jobs or layoffs. The whole infrastructure around airports has changed. TSA lost a bunch of folks. It’s just a whole process that basically had this massive reset – but there’s not enough people in place right now,” Seaney said. “So you’ll have to have an abundance of patience when you travel nowadays.”

Seaney said there’s a labor shortage across the travel industry in addition to a change in travel routes compared to pre-pandemic days.

“Flight frequencies are down. A lot of airlines had cut back on the number of flights during the pandemic,” he said. “I think they thought travel was going to come back but I don’t think they really thought it was going to be this quick. They thought it would be a little more rolling into the summertime. They were prepared to some degree but the problem is being prepared and then getting all those folks back in."

Since travel demand has increased, airlines have brought those routes back but have been more focused on popular areas like beach and tourist destinations to meet high demand.

So Seaney warns any hiccup in the travel flow is going to sting a little more for passengers.

“They're magnified when you have a glitch. When it’s really kind of at a straining point, when those kind of glitches occur, it’s really hard to catch up. Because there’s nowhere to put anybody,” he said.

NBC 5 reached out to North Texas-based American Airlines and Southwest Airlines for even more insight.

Neither wouldn't comment specifically on a labor shortage in the industry but did acknowledge how busy summer travel has become lately.

“Our team is working hard to deliver a reliable operation and take special care of our customers for the busy summer travel season,” American Airlines said in a statement. “We thank our team members for their effort in ensuring our customers are safe and comfortable, especially as many return to travel for the first time since the pandemic. We look forward to welcoming back more customers this summer and connecting them to our global network through DFW Airport.”

American Airlines added that the company is confident in their staffing levels this summer and beyond. A spokesperson also said weather impacts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have been one of the biggest drivers of delays and cancellations to DFW Airport in the past few months, and even more so in the past few weeks.

Southwest Airlines said business travel still significantly lags behind leisure recovery, however, they’ve seen modest and consistent improvement in business trends.

The airline added they are continuing to see fairly typical booking patterns for summer 2021 and improvements in leisure demand. Their May load factor, which is the percentage of occupied seats, was 84% and they expect June and July load factors of 85%.

“As far as assisting our customers during this time, we are fortunate to have managed the company and the airline through the depth of the pandemic without any layoffs or furloughs, continuing a 50-year streak of putting employees above all else,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “There is no shortage of people who hope to sign on with the only airline in America to proudly curate such a record…We’re just busy, staffed up and grateful for the grace of any of our Customers who experienced travel delays and had to spend extra time getting answers to their questions following the technical challenges of this week.”

According to CNBC, United Airlines told more than 40,000 employees on Friday that their jobs are safe when federal Covid-19 aid for the sector expires this fall thanks to a rebound in travel demand.

Experts say it’s best to pack your patience. Download the airline apps to get cancellation and delay alerts as soon as they happen. You can also handle rebooking on your own if you run into troubles.

If your flight is cancelled last minute and you need to wait in a long line at the airport customer service counter, Seaney suggests heading to another service counter in a different terminal away from the busy gate where your flight was cancelled.

“It’s one of those things where we just have to roll with it," said Seaney. "Airlines by their nature are customer oriented companies. They want to help people out as much as they can. And they’re going to try as best as they can to get the folks in those places. They’re working in cooperation with the TSA to make sure airports have enough people to handle the amount of people coming in."

Finally, remember that any destinations with a beach will be more expensive because demand. Seaney said it's important to check for rental car availability and price because a shortage in rental cars is driving up the prices in many regions of the country.

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