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Summer air travel could be expensive and chaotic. Here's how to avoid trouble

Travelers queue up as they move through the north security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport, Thursday, May 26, 2022.
David Zalubowski
Travelers queue up as they move through the north security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport, Thursday, May 26, 2022.

CHICAGO — At airports this summer, it may almost appear as if the pandemic never happened. The long security lines, the crowded gates, the jam-packed planes; they're all back. And so too are soaring prices and extra fees.

"Air fare is incredibly high for domestic travel this summer," says Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel search and data app Hopper. "We're seeing this week air fares averaging about $394 round-trip for domestic flight per ticket."

Berg says that's about 50% more than last summer and nearly 25% higher than air fares during the pre-pandemic summer of 2019.

A new report out today from Adobe Analytics finds that prices for domestic airline flights have risen 47% since January. The company measures online domestic air travel bookings at six of the 10 largest U.S. airlines and 150 billion visits to travel web sites, finding that consumers spent $8.3 billion on air travel in May, up 6.2% from April. Adobe's data show that air fares for flights booked in May were 30% higher than in May 2019, the year many in the industry use for a pre-pandemic benchmark comparison.

"That's really been striking to see, especially because of where we were with air travel earlier in the pandemic and through much of the past two years," says Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. "Now we're seeing heavy demand coupled with high prices," which are not yet cooling red-hot demand for air travel.

"These higher air fares are not deterring travelers and that's (for travel) both domestically and abroad," Hopper's Hayley Berg says. "Consumers are willing to pay the higher air fares to get away this summer."

One of the largest factors driving up air fares is the skyrocketing price of jet fuel. Berg says the rising cost of crude oil has pushed jet fuel prices up more than double since 2019.

Another factor is "a huge surge in demand for travel after two years of very, very depressed travel," says Berg, at a time when there when "there's less capacity out there than there was in 2019."

"Look, there are a lot of people who have not been able to travel where they want, as they want, for two years," says travel analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group, who notes that airline bookings are back to pre-pandemic levels, but "we are still more than 10% below the number of flights that we had before COVID."

"And that means less choice, and less choice means fewer seats," Harteveldt adds. "In addition, some airlines aren't operating as many wide body jets ... so that also means fewer seats."

He and others say travelers who have not booked their summer trip yet might be better off delaying their vacation until fall, when air fares will likely come down and there may be more flights to choose from.

"It's going to be a 'Hunger Games' like battle to get the fares you want, the flights you want" this summer, Harteveldt says. "And the concern I have is that there's absolutely no wiggle room, no flex room, in the industry if and when something goes wrong."

And Harteveldt points out that in summer time, something like bad weather and airline staffing shortages can combine to create air travel chaos, with widespread flight delays and cancellations.

That's what happened over the busy Memorial Day weekend, when airlines cancelled thousands of flights, and thousands more were delayed.

So airlines are trying to be proactive and are cutting flights from their summer schedules to try to minimize delays and cancellations.

"Because of the staffing shortage that exists, especially with pilots, airlines have scaled back the number of flights they're going to operate this summer in order to have a buffer of extra pilots, extra flight attendants, and extra airplanes, ready, in case you get a bad storm or something else that disrupts their operation," Harteveldt says.

Delta Air Lines, which had an especially high number of cancellations in recent weeks, has now trimmed more than 100 flights a day from it's schedule for the rest of the summer. American, United, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska, and other airlines have reduced their summer flight schedules, too.

Almost all of them have had their own operational meltdowns periodically over the last year, says Kathleen Bangs of the flight tracking firm FlightAware, whose data show that through May the seven largest U.S. airlines had cancelled 3% of all their flights this year.

"Anything over about 1% before COVID we thought was a pretty high number," Bangs says. "So this has been high this year and it is a good thing the airlines have scaled back some because there's such a surge in demand."

What do the experts recommend to help you avoid being stranded by flight delays and cancellations?

Bangs says she advises people to get a good weather app and look at forecasts ahead of time for the days you're scheduled to travel.

"They have predictions 14 days out, (and) you can get a fairly good idea certainly 7 days out, of what the weather is going to be," Bangs says.

She adds that it's important to look at forecasts not just for the places you're flying from and to, but all around the country because storms in one place can have a ripple effect, causing delays and cancellations through an airline's entire network.

Bangs says airlines may allow travelers to change their flight to a day or two before or after the days storms are forecast.

"There's a good chance if you contact the airline because of these events, they will accommodate that (flight change) and they will put that (information) on their websites," Bangs says.

She also recommends booking flights through the airline directly so you'll have a better chance of resolving a problem if one arises.

"I feel bad for these Internet search companies that sell tickets, but you really want to buy your ticket directly from the airlines because if there's an issue it's so much easier to get the airlines to work with you," Bangs says. "But if you buy that through a third party it's very difficult to make those changes," to your flight, she adds.

To find lower fares, experts recommend being flexible in your travel plans.

"If you fly later in August, you can save about $100 per ticket off of peak prices," says Hopper's Hayley Berg. "If you can fly middle of the week, say a Tuesday or Wednesday, you can save about $35 or more on a domestic flight. So flexibility is really the key to finding great deals if you haven't booked your summer vacation yet."

In addition, many travel experts advise planning ahead as if something will go wrong, as summer air travel chaos is almost inevitable.

"Any of us who are planning to travel this summer need to go in with the assumption that something will go wrong and be thrilled when it doesn't," Harteveldt says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.