DALLAS — Airlines and tourist destinations are expecting monster crowds this summer as travel restrictions ease and pandemic fatigue overcomes lingering fear of contracting COVID-19 while traveling.
Many forecasters believe that the number of travelers will match or even exceed the levels of the good old pre-pandemic days. However, airlines have thousands fewer employees than in 2019, which has at times contributed to widespread flight cancellations.
People who are only now booking trips for the summer are getting sticker shock.
Domestic airline fares for the summer are averaging more than $400 per round trip, 24% higher than at this time in 2019, before the pandemic, and 45% higher than it was. a year ago, according to travel data firm Hopper.
“The time to get cheap summer flights was probably three or four months ago,” says Scott Keyes, who runs the Scott’s Cheap Flights site.
Internationally, prices are also up compared to 2019, but only by 10%. Fares to Europe are about 5% cheaper than before the pandemic — $868 for an average round trip, according to Hopper. Keyes said Europe is the best travel deal there.
Steve Nelson of Mansfield, Texas, stood in line this week at a security checkpoint at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ready to board a flight to Nice, France, with the intention of attending at a Formula 1 race in Monaco.
“I decided it was time to work on my to-do list,” Nelson said. “I hadn’t even considered Monaco until this year.”
Although many countries have relaxed travel rules, there are still restrictions in place that add to the hassle factor. Notably, the United States still requires a negative COVID-19 test within a day of flying into the country.
“We only realized it a few days before coming here. We sort of panicked to find a place to get tested,” said Jonny Dawe, a software engineer 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 getting the virus.”
Online spending on U.S. flights fell in April after a torrid March, but is still up 23% from spring 2019, mostly due to higher prices, according to Adobe Analytics.
Airlines are attributing the higher fares to jet fuel, the price of which has roughly doubled from 2019. It’s more than that, though. The number of flights has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, even as travel demand increases.
“We have more travelers looking to book fewer seats, and each of those seats is going to cost airlines more money this summer because of jet fuel,” says Hopper economist Hayley Berg.
When travelers reach their destination, they will be greeted with hotel rates up about a third from last year. Hotels are also filling up faster. Hotel companies attribute the rise in prices to the rising cost of supplies as well as workers in a tight labor market.
Rental cars were hard to come by and very expensive last summer, but that seems to have eased as rental companies rebuild their fleets. The national average price is currently around $70 a day, according to Hopper.
Jonathan Weinberg, the founder of a rental car shopping site called AutoSlash, said vehicle prices and availability will be wildly patchy. It won’t be as bad as last summer, but vehicle prices will still be “way above average, if you can even find one,” in Hawaii, Alaska, and near destinations like the National parks.
Even if you drive your own car, it will still be expensive. The national average for regular gasoline hit $4.60 a gallon on Thursday, or more than $6 in California. These prices are prompting some people to consider staying at home.
“You don’t really get used to $6 in gas,” Juliet Ripley of San Diego said as she paid $46.38 to put 7.1 gallons in her Honda Civic. The single mother of two has no summer vacation plans other than the occasional trip to a nearby beach.
For those determined to travel, however, the question remains whether airlines, airports, hotels and other travel companies will be able to handle them.
More than 2.1 million people a day on average board planes in the United States, about 90% of 2019 levels and a number that is sure to increase by several hundred thousand a day from here July.
The US Transportation Security Administration has employed nearly 1,000 checkpoint screeners who can move from airport to airport, depending on where they are needed most.
“We are as prepared as we can be,” TSA chief David Pekoske said.
Airlines that paid employees to quit when travel collapsed in 2020 are now scrambling to hire enough pilots, flight attendants and other workers. The four largest US airlines – American, Delta, United and Southwest – together had about 36,000 fewer employees at the start of 2022 than before the pandemic, a decline of nearly 10%, despite aggressive hiring that began Last year.
Pilots are especially scarce at smaller regional airlines that operate nearly half of all US flights under names like American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.
Airlines are reducing their summer hours to avoid overloading their staff and canceling flights at the last minute. 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 not limited to the US In the UK, easyJet and British Airways canceled many flights this spring due to staff shortages.
Air travel in Europe is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels this summer, although visitors from outside the region are likely to be down 30% from 2019, according to a new report from the European Travel Commission . The group does not expect international travel to return to normal until 2025.
Russia’s war in Ukraine does not appear to be hurting bookings in most of Europe, travel experts say, 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 hurt the tourism economies of these destinations.
Also largely absent: Chinese tourists, the world’s biggest travel consumers, who remain largely constrained by their government’s “zero-COVID” strategy. Some European destinations report that the number of Chinese tourists has decreased by more than 90% compared to 2019.