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Are We Headed for Another Chaotic Spring and Summer in Air Travel? | Frommer's Oleg Elkov / Shutterstock

Are We Headed for Another Chaotic Spring and Summer in Air Travel?

2022’s huge spike in travel demand has spilled over into 2023. Will things be smoother this year?

Go back to this time one year ago, and the mood throughout the travel sector was one of anticipation. As countries eased entry restrictions and the Omicron wave faded, it became clear the spring and summer travel months would be unlike any in recent memory.

They were. 

Airport parking lots sold out. Concourses and planes filled like they hadn’t in years. And an understaffed aviation industry struggled to meet the surge in demand, leading to spikes in flight delays, security wait times, and other headaches.

With another spring and summer travel season fast approaching, have we got the madness of 2022 out of our systems? 

Even after so many travelers have had the chance by now to take long-awaited trips—and even amid lingering uncertainty over inflation, recession, and other economic worries affecting consumers—travel numbers for early 2023 suggest the public’s pent-up urge to roam has yet to be satisfied.  

That’s true whether you look at airline bookings, online travel agency data, or TSA figures. 

As the busy holiday travel season gave way to January, American Airlines executives touted what they labeled during the company’s most recent earnings call the “best-ever” post-holiday booking period. And executives expect robust demand to continue. 

Expedia Group noted internet searches in 2022’s waning months for trips in 2023 far surpassed similar searches a year prior.

And more passengers passed through TSA checkpoints in January 2023 than in pre-pandemic January 2019. Even more recently, TSA data shows that the Friday leading into Presidents' Day weekend was the second busiest day for air travel since the start of the pandemic, eclipsing any summer traffic seen last year and trailing only the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2022.

As Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian recently told investors, “We know the public wants to travel, in outsized amounts that we see continuing.”

But Bastian added that the company must “not disappoint” customers in 2023—a stark reminder of the operational challenges numerous airlines faced amid historic staffing shortages in 2022, including, notably, a deficit in the supply of pilots. 

With all that in mind, the big question is: Will air travel be easier in 2023? 

3 Reasons for Optimism

1. Flight cancellations are trending downward overall.

One of the biggest reasons for optimism when it comes to 2023 spring and summer air travel is that things have already improved significantly on the delays-and-cancellations front (generally speaking—Southwest Airlines customers might beg to differ). 

As a matter of fact, U.S.-based airlines began to see improvement even before summer 2022 was over, with 1.8% of flights getting canceled between July and Labor Day—down from 2.7% of flights canceled between Memorial Day weekend and the end of June, according to data from FlightAware.

The numbers continued to improve through the fall, with just 1.1% of flights canceled between Labor Day and mid-December, according to FlightAware.

2. Airlines are ramping up hiring and training

Airlines have been on hiring sprees to address staffing shortages that contributed to last year’s challenges. Delta hired some 25,000 new employees through year’s end—a quarter of the company’s workforce.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom recently told investors the company is currently going through the “greatest training cycle of pilots we’ve ever experienced” to address its pilot shortage.

Additionally, airlines have been flying leaner schedules to allow themselves more flexibility. 

3. Some international airports are improving operations

One of the biggest headaches for travelers last spring and summer: horrific security checkpoint lines, packed customs centers, and piles of lost luggage at international airports.

While time will ultimately tell how overseas airports manage in 2023, fewer Covid-19 protocols ought to help; Toronto airport officials, for instance, had cited now-defunct health screenings as a primary source of last year’s long waits at Pearson International Airport. 

The biggest European hub for American travelers, London’s Heathrow Airport, told Frommer’s in a statement that the airport’s passenger satisfaction rate now hovers near or above pre-pandemic levels. According to the statement, 98% of passengers in January waited less than 10 minutes for security screenings. 

3 Reasons for Continued Concern

1. There’s a “but” to many improvements.

Cancellations and delays are down? Tell that to passengers affected by Southwest Airlines’ meltdown over the holidays or the FAA’s January computer outage. Air travel didn’t exactly ace its most recent big test—i.e., the end-of-year holidays—and now passengers have to worry about computer glitches and outdated technology systems potentially grounding flights?

It’s great that airlines are hiring a ton of pilots, but training them will take time to produce true benefits for passengers.

And at international airports, there remain many unknowns about what 2023 will bring, particularly in countries that weren’t fully open a year ago—like in parts of Asia, for example.

In Europe and the U.K., meanwhile, waves of labor strikes by airport workers and border agents are throwing a wrench in travel plans across the continent. 

2. There are fewer places to put passengers.

Those leaner schedules that airlines are using mean fewer flights. And that, in turn, means fewer places to put stranded travelers when something goes wrong, making a missed connection or weather cancellation much more disruptive. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis found that involuntary passenger bumping is on the rise after years of declines. 

3. Mother Nature keeps getting angrier

Over the past year, we’ve repeatedly seen how bad weather can snarl air travel, especially when paired with other factors such as staffing challenges and computer trouble.

Airlines hope changes they’ve made in recent months will make them more resilient in the face of bad weather, but a significant thunderstorm on a high-demand weekend in a busy corridor like New York can be a cascading headache in any event. And there’s no reason to believe the trend toward ever more severe weather will abate in 2023—or beyond.

Ultimately, the extent to which the aviation industry has learned from and adapted to the challenges of 2022 will do much to determine whether we’re in for a repeat or a reprieve in 2023.