Summer travel: chaos ahead, mask confusion, lack of pilots and more

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(CNN) – Temperatures are rising, Covid incidence is down, restrictions are fading in the blink of an eye, and summer vacation is so close you can smell sunscreen. But leaving this year won’t be easy or relaxing.

Experts warn that the chaos travelers endured during spring break is a harbinger of the worst.

Anyone thinking about air travel in the next few months is facing potential delays or cancellations as airlines try to restore capacity and workforce that have been drastically reduced during the pandemic.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday it has asked the Department of Justice to appeal Monday’s decision by a federal judge that overturned a mandate to wear masks on public transportation. The Justice Department filed an appeal early Wednesday evening. Stay tuned to learn more about this legal fight.

Add it all up and we’re heading into a season of stress levels that will exhaust even the most seasoned traveler. The prospect of a fully reclining business class seat doesn’t limit your aviation worries.

Although many of the problems are global in nature, it is in the United States that they are most acutely felt at present. With China still subject to regular lockdowns, America is likely on track to reclaim the crown of busiest country in air traffic.

And it just experienced the busiest weekend since Covid, with 6.5 million travelers going through airport security checks Friday through Sunday. However, not everyone boarded the scheduled flight.

Nearly 1,000 flights arriving in or departing from the United States were canceled over the weekend, adding to the legions that had been unable to fly in previous weeks.

Safety and abbreviated schedule

JetBlue planes are at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. on January 18, 2022. JetBlue recently announced that they are phasing out their summer schedule.

Stephanie Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

That’s not all: major US airlines say they don’t have enough pilots to fly on schedule.

JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have already cut their summer schedules. It is likely that others will have to do the same or play fast and loose with what they have to offer their customers.

Even worse, it can affect flight safety.

One Pilot Union – The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA – I recently wrote a letter to the leaders emphasizing rising pilot fatigue and a warning that levels of acute and cumulative fatigue now pose a major safety risk. Southwest Airlines acknowledged the rise in fatigue complaints.

At the heart of the problem are the measures taken by airlines to stay afloat in the early days of the pandemic, when passenger aircraft fleets were ground to a halt and the skies fell silent. Draining money, airlines quickly began unloading planes and laying off thousands of pilots and support crews.

Pilot fatigue “is something that has been on the rise for some time now,” Mutean said. “And that means the system is really overloaded right now. So many people are returning to flying, especially over Easter and Easter weekend.”

“Airlines tend to be smaller and crews are struggling to keep up,” he said.

The problem is getting worse: some pilots have reached retirement age or have decided to leave the profession, meaning that major US passenger airlines are struggling to cope with a return to 90% pre-pandemic traffic levels, but with fewer people flying planes.

And while flight crew hours are highly regulated, the unions say that working maximum hours means pilots can’t waste time on stress caused by other problems, such as delays due to bad weather. Another reason why flights are canceled is because pilots get sick due to fatigue.

“It will get worse”

Passengers wait in line to check in at Terminal 1 of Manchester Airport in England on April 16, 2022.  Airports in the United Kingdom are having trouble starting flights due to a shortage of staff.

Passengers wait in line to check in at Terminal 1 of Manchester Airport in England on April 16, 2022. Airports in the United Kingdom are having trouble starting flights due to a shortage of staff.

Ioannis Alexopoulos/LNP/Shutterstock

To make matters worse, there have been similar problems at some airports, especially in Europe. Scenes of chaos at UK airports in the previous couple of weeks have been partly attributed to staffing shortages as facilities struggle to fill positions that have been streamlined during the pandemic.

It’s another omen of trouble ahead, says consumer advocate Christopher Elliottwhich monitors the situation in the US and Europe.
“I think it’s a preview of what’s coming next, and I really think it’s going to get worse,” says Elliott, founder of the nonprofit. Elliot Advocacy.

“There will be chaos in the summer,” he is so sure that he advises his followers to avoid Europe in August, at the height of the peak season.

“I think we’re seeing some pandemic-related delays, but I think they’re built into the equation at the moment – I don’t think that’s really a legitimate excuse,” he says.

“Everyone is to blame, except themselves. If they had a good look in the mirror, they would have realized that during the pandemic they were cutting staff and laying off employees, and now the demand is back and they are caught off guard. couldn’t recruit staff fast enough to meet demand.”

As Alaska and JetBlue cut flights, the sudden surge in people looking to buy flights will tempt airlines hit by Covid to try to recoup losses from the pandemic by selling seats to meet market demand.

But while many airlines are currently recruiting new pilots, paying big bucks to hire new pilots, there is still the possibility that many flights will simply not operate as scheduled in the coming months.

Mass confusion with the mask

A group of masked and unmasked travelers make their way through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on April 19, 2022.  Travelers will find it difficult to navigate the latest mask changes.

A group of masked and unmasked travelers make their way through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on April 19, 2022. Travelers will find it difficult to navigate the latest mask changes.

Kevin Lamarck/REUTERS

For passengers hoping to make a much-needed trip after two years of restrictions, experts advise buying tickets as soon as possible so that the airline is held accountable even if the flight is shortened.

“Just book now,” says Courtney Miller, managing director of analysis at The Air Current.

“If they cancel my flight, they will have to find me a new flight; if I wait, the risk is on me,” he says.

Even if passengers board the plane, Monday’s lifting of the US government’s mandate to wear face masks on planes could add to the confusion. Many airlines have now made masks optional on board, but the rules will be different for international flights, where face masks may still be mandatory.

There is likely to remain some residual uncertainty about the appropriateness of wearing masks as the latest decision conflicted with an earlier decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to renew the mask mandate and the situation is now under formal review.

General consensus is elusive

Medical experts may disagree about the need to cover up during a flight.

Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN that she personally would still wear a mask on planes, trains and airports.

Overall, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Authorities told CNN Tuesday that travel mask mandates should continue — at least a little longer — until the CDC gets more data on the distribution of sub-option BA.2.

“We believe that wearing masks on interstate transport is still an important intervention worth continuing,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

“The biggest concern is that we want people to be safe and we are concerned that we are not yet through the pandemic the way people want it to be and the (Covid-19) rates are starting to rise again,” Plescia . said.

Hard ground game

People queue to pick up a car at an Avis counter at a car rental center at Miami International Airport on April 12, 2021.  This year, travelers may also face long wait times and sky-high prices.

People queue to pick up a car at an Avis counter at a car rental center at Miami International Airport on April 12, 2021. This year, travelers may also face long wait times and sky-high prices.

Joe Radle / Getty Images

Zane Kirby, president of the American Society of Travel Consultants, warns that new challenges could arise at the destination. Take car rental, for example, another industry that is struggling to cope with its post-pandemic turnaround.

“It could be worse than last year,” he warns. “There are popular destinations in the US — Honolulu, Los Angeles, South Florida — where prices have skyrocketed.”

Last year, he was offered $3,200 for a week’s rent in Hawaii.

“I didn’t want to buy a car, I just rented it,” he says.

CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Elizabeth Wolfe, Travis Caldwell, Amanda Jackson and Jacqueline Howard contributed to the story.

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