Air travelers face flight delays, cancellations this holiday weekend

Holiday travel
Travelers wait in security lines in the terminal at Reagan Washington National Airport Nov. 26, 2013.
Photo by Win McNamee | Getty Images 2013

Delta Airlines will allow travelers to reschedule flights free of charge this weekend — anticipating “operational problems” during the Fourth of July holiday.

If cancellations are in store, the airline will have company. According to Thrifty Traveler, since yesterday, American Airlines has canceled more than 500 flights, and United Airlines more than 200.

To make sense of the mess, host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Gunnar Olson — a flight deal analyst and travel reporter at Thrifty Traveler.

Below is a transcript of their conversation that has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Are the cancelations and Delta’s free rescheduling offer a sign of trouble ahead?

We definitely think so. And I think Delta's waiver that they announced yesterday is them kind of admitting that there's going to be logistical challenges at our airports all across the country this weekend.

Delta has been complaining of staffing shortages. It said it would cut 100 flights a day. Is that still a factor here?

Definitely. I think what has happened in the last month is they have not been able to staff up to pre-pandemic levels. That means that their routes, their network around the country is going to be disrupted because travel demand is as high as it was before the pandemic.

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So everyone is taking back to the skies. But there's not enough people above and below the wing to staff those routes right now. So I think that's going to lead to some of this pain that they're expecting this weekend, and that we've been seeing over the last couple of weekends.

What are airlines doing to find workers?

The airlines are doing whatever they can to find workers within their own ranks and from other airlines. The smaller regional carriers, some of which fly under the Delta flag, for instance, are having some of their staff taken up to the main Delta carrier. So some of those smaller routes are having issues with their staffing, and it's kind of as those people trickle up.

But I know, all the airlines have made a big point of making sure that they're hiring pilots quickly. There are some hurdles as far as training hours, the amount of time that pilots need in order to safely fly all of these airlines. But right now they're staffing up as quickly as they can.

So airlines are cutting flights to balance staffing, and as they say, they hope to increase reliability, but that doesn't seem to be happening.

Right. The free change waiver that Delta has just issued for this weekend — they typically reserved these things for storms, weather events, whether it be thunderstorms or snowstorms, other inclement weather that's impacting flights. This is a very different kind of storm for them and one that they're not going to be able to ride out very easily. So they're bracing for this. They're hiring as fast as they can. But I think for this summer, we can expect there to be at least some disruptions.

What's this doing to Delta's brand, and really to trust for the industry as a whole?

For Delta in particular, they've prided themselves for a long time on being the on-time carrier, reliability has been so big for them and a huge part of their brand. And they've been able to do that because they build slack into their system. There are pilots, flight attendants, there are people waiting at their major hubs to fill in on canceled flights. Without that slack, Delta has become pretty much just like every other airline.

You know, we're seeing Delta lead the way and cancellations last weekend. They also had a big meltdown over Memorial Day weekend. I know people, especially in the Twin Cities area and in Minnesota, still love Delta because of the connectivity here out of the MSP hub. But it's definitely something to look at. Their reputation has taken a little bit of a hit. But obviously they're not alone here. So many airlines are dealing with the same issues, Delta because of their reputation as a reliable carrier, probably just a little more so.

And as all this is happening, ticket prices have increased more than 45 percent since January. And the flying experience seems as though it's bad as it's ever been. How do the ticket prices fold into all of this?

We are seeing on average ticket prices are much higher than they used to be. The demand is back for travel, people are ready to fly. And this summer, people are proving that they're willing to pay just about anything to fly. That's not to say that there aren’t really good deals out there. You know, airfare is ultimately a competitive business. And on the routes, where there's lots of competition between airlines, we're still finding some really good low airfare.

But it's definitely expensive. If you're going to your cousin's wedding for a weekend this summer, it's probably going to cost you. But as we look out into fall, things are a little bit more normal than we're seeing. So if you can stomach saving your trip until September, October, November, there's plenty of good deals out there. We're finding them every day. But there's no doubt there's a little bit of pain as far as your wallet when we're flying this summer.

What deals are you're seeing this summer?

We've seen a lot of value on flights internationally. I think the best value is going to be to Lisbon, Portugal and not to Los Angeles. The domestic airfare is sky high right now. There's so much demand for people to get around the country. But if you look overseas, you're actually gonna find some really good value.

All throughout the summer we found great flight deals to Europe flying. So think about Ireland's Aer Lingus, Portugal's TAP, Scandinavia SAS, Icelandair which flies in and out of Minneapolis too. There's a lot of value on those carriers. And they have some nonstop flights to which people are obviously interested in right now, you don't want to make a connection if you can avoid it at this point so you don't get delayed or canceled.

We've seen some eye popping stuff, I mean, down to Cape Town, South Africa, from Minneapolis for less than $600 round trip. And that's a record low from Minneapolis. So there's lots of stuff out there, if you're willing to leave the country. And without the return testing requirement, it's a little bit easier to do so than it was before.

For folks hoping to travel this weekend, how do you prepare for something like this?

There are some quick and easy tips, we actually have some on our website at thriftytraveler.com, you can read all of them. But the best thing to do, especially if you're flying Delta, is take advantage of this waiver and go change your flight and pick the very first flight of the day.

The early flight is much less prone to cancellations and delays as the day goes on. There's a ripple effect of cancellations and delays where the crews that need to be in Minneapolis for your next flight might not be able to get there because of their cancellation, and so on and so forth.

So go book that early flight with this travel waiver, you won't have to pay for the change fee. There's no fare difference applied to either. Like I mentioned before, fly nonstop, if you can. I know that's easier said than done in some cases but the more flights you take, the better your chances are for getting disrupted. And then otherwise, just some simple things we usually recommend: Don't check a bag. This is especially so right now, the bag drop line at the airport, especially at MSP right now. That's the worst pinch point in your travel experience. We've seen people waiting up to an hour just to get their bag on the conveyor belt and that's before they even get to the security line. Plus, airlines are losing bags at record levels, partially due to these staffing concerns. So don't chance it if you can avoid it, control your own destiny.

And then finally, get to the airport early. I love the memes of people making fun of dads who are a little overzealous and getting the airport early, but I think dad's gonna be vindicated this weekend. It's just good advice to take your time get there early.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] INTERVIEWER: It's possible Delta Airlines might be in the news again this holiday weekend because of potential travel disruptions. And if that happens, Delta will have company. According to the travel website Thriftytraveler.com, since yesterday, American has canceled 500 plus flights and counting. United is up to 200. Bad weather will complicate the equation. So what gives? We're going to ask Gunnar Olson that. He's a flight deal analyst and editor at Thrifty Traveler. Gunnar, welcome to the program. How are you?

GUNNAR OLSON: Hi Kathy, I'm well. How about you?

INTERVIEWER: Good, thanks for being here. So, I guess more than 500 flights canceled just today. And Delta announced yesterday it's going to allow travelers to reschedule flights free of charge this weekend. That seems to be a sign of more trouble ahead.

GUNNAR OLSON: Yeah, we definitely think so. And I think Delta's waiver that they announced yesterday is them kind of admitting that there is going to be logistical challenges at our airports, all across the country this weekend.

INTERVIEWER: Delta has been complaining of staffing shortages. Earlier this summer, it said it would cut 100 flights a day. Is that still a factor here?

GUNNAR OLSON: Yes, definitely. I think what has happened in the last month is they have not been able to staff up to pre-pandemic levels. And that means that their routes, their network around the country is going to be disrupted. Because travel demand is as high as it was before the pandemic. So, everyone is taking back to the skies. But there's not enough people above and below the wing to staff those routes right now. So I think that's going to lead to some of this pain that they're expecting this weekend and that we've been seeing over the last couple of weekends.

INTERVIEWER: I saw a figure somewhere, maybe you saw it too. Some 50,000 airline workers left or were let go at the height of the pandemic. What are airlines doing to find workers?

GUNNAR OLSON: Yeah, I think that's about right. Basically, the airlines are doing whatever they can to find workers within their own ranks and from other airlines. For instance, the smaller regional carriers, some of which fly under the Delta flag, for instance, are having some of their staff taken up to the main Delta carrier. Some of those smaller routes are having issues with their staffing.

And it's kind of, as those people trickle up-- but I know all the airlines have made a big point of making sure that they're hiring pilots quickly. There are some hurdles as far as training hours, the amount of time that pilots need in order to safely fly all of these airlines. But right now, they're staffing up as quickly as they can.

INTERVIEWER: So, airlines are cutting flights to balance staffing. And as they say, they hope to increase reliability. But that doesn't seem to be happening.

GUNNAR OLSON: Right. Things like this, that free change waiver that Delta has just issued for this weekend, they typically reserve these things for storms, weather events, whether it be thunderstorms, or snowstorms, or other inclement weather that's impacting flights. But this is a very different kind of storm for them, and one that they're not going to be able to ride out very easily. They're bracing for this. They're hiring as fast as they can. But I think for this summer, we can expect there to be at least some disruptions.

INTERVIEWER: What's this doing to Delta's brand, and really to trust in the industry as a whole?

GUNNAR OLSON: Yeah, well, for Delta in particular, they've prided themselves for a long time on being the on-time carrier. Reliability has been so big for them and a huge part of their brand. And they've been able to do that because they build slack into their system. There are pilots, flight attendants, there are people waiting at their major hubs to fill in on canceled flights. Without that slack, Delta has become pretty much just like every other airline. We're seeing Delta lead the way in cancellations last weekend. They also had a big meltdown over Memorial Day weekend.

I know people, especially in the Twin Cities area and in Minnesota, still love Delta because of the connectivity here out of the MSP hub. But it's definitely something to look at, that their reputation has taken a little bit of a hit. But obviously, they're not alone here. So many airlines are dealing with these same issues, Delta, because of their reputation as a reliable carrier, probably just a little more so.

INTERVIEWER: And as all this is happening, ticket prices have increased more than 45% since January, which is eye popping. And the flying experience, which really wasn't-- let's face it-- great to begin with, seems as though it's bad as it's ever been. How do the ticket prices fold into all of this?

GUNNAR OLSON: Well, we are seeing overall, on average, ticket prices are much higher than they used to be, like you said, 40 something percent in a lot of cases. The demand is back for travel. People are ready to fly. And this summer, people are proving that they're willing to pay just about anything to fly. That's not to say that there aren't really good deals out there. Airfare is ultimately a competitive business. And on the routes where there's lots of competition between airlines, we're still finding some really good low airfare.

But it's definitely expensive. If you're going to your cousin's wedding for a weekend this summer, it's probably going to cost you. But as we look out into fall, things are a little bit more normal than we're seeing. So if you can stomach saving your trip until September, October, November, there's plenty of good deals out there. We're finding them every day. But this summer, there's no doubt, there's a little bit of pain, as far as your wallet, when we're flying this summer.

INTERVIEWER: Give me an idea, if you would, please, about deals you're seeing yet this summer.

GUNNAR OLSON: Yeah, so this summer, we've seen a lot of value on flights internationally. I think the best value is going to be to Lisbon, Portugal, and not to Los Angeles. The domestic airfare is sky high right now. There's so much demand for people to get around the country. But if you look overseas, you're actually going to find some really good value all throughout the summer. We found great flight deals to Europe.

So think about Ireland's Aer Lingus, Portugal's TAP, Scandinavia's SAS, Icelandair, which flies in and out of Minneapolis too. There's a lot of value on those carriers. And they have some nonstop flights too, which people are obviously interested in right now. You don't want to make a connection, if you can avoid it at this point so you don't get delayed or canceled.

But one thing-- we've seen some eye popping stuff. I mean, down to Cape Town, South Africa from Minneapolis, for less than $600 round trip. That's a record low from Minneapolis. So there's lots of stuff out there, if you're willing to leave the country. And without the return testing requirement, it's a little bit easier to do so than it was before.

INTERVIEWER: I'm glad you mentioned try to get a nonstop flight if you can. Because if folks are planning to travel for this weekend, and they're hearing, oh my gosh, this could be kind of a mess. How do you prepare for something like this?

GUNNAR OLSON: Yeah, so there are some quick and easy tips. We actually have some on our website at thriftytraveler.com. You can read all of them. But the best thing to do is, especially if you're flying Delta, take advantage of this waiver, and go change your flight, and pick the very first flight of the day. The early flight is much less prone to cancellations and delays.

As the day goes on, there's a ripple effect of cancellations and delays, where the crews that need to be in Minneapolis for your next flight might not be able to get there because of their cancellation, and so on, and so forth. So, go book that early flight with this travel waiver. You won't have to pay for the change fee. There's no fare difference supplied either. Like I mentioned before, fly nonstop if you can. I know that's easier said than done in some cases. But the more flights you take, the better your chances are for getting disrupted.

And then, otherwise, just some simple things we usually recommend, don't check a bag. This is especially so right now. The bag drop line at the airport, especially at MSP right now, that's the worst pinch point in your travel experience. We've seen people waiting up to an hour, just to get their bag on the conveyor belt. And that's before they even get to the security line. Plus, the airlines are losing bags at record levels, partially due to these staffing concerns. So don't chance it, if you can avoid it, control your own destiny.

And then finally, get to the airport early. I love the memes of people making fun of dads who are a little overzealous in getting to the airport early. But I think dad's going to be vindicated this weekend. It's just good advice to take your time and get there early.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, well Gunnar, thank you so much. I appreciate your time. And if you're flying, good luck this weekend.

GUNNAR OLSON: Thank you, Kathy.

INTERVIEWER: You're welcome. Gunnar Olson is a travel reporter, flight deal analyst at Thriftytraveler.com.

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