Lost luggage, canceled flights and the pandemic: Should you fly amid the air travel chaos?

As the international travel chaos continues, you might wonder whether it’s a good time to book a flight right now. Will things ease up or is this the new normal?

Some 126,000 Air New Zealand passengers were affected by flight cancellations last weekend alone as staff sickness and wild winter weather made it impossible for the airline to keep up with school holiday demand.

In Europe, chaotic scenes are playing out at airports from London to Amsterdam to Madrid as the short-staffed aviation sector buckles under the pressure of higher passenger numbers than predicted. In June, carriers in the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany canceled nearly 8000 flights – almost three times as many as during the same period in 2019 – aviation consultancy Cirium says. Travelers in the US, Canada and Australia, meanwhile, have also been subject to mass cancellations.

Meanwhile, there have been outbreaks of monkeypox and foot-and-mouth disease, and a massive storm in Rarotonga. Luggage is getting lost left, right and center (some European airports are now being referred to as “luggage graveyards”), and would-be travelers are waiting hours in line at airports and on hold to airlines. And then, of course, there’s the little matter of Covid-19.

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So, do you have to be a glutton for punishment to fly right now? Is this the “new normal” of air travel?

University of Otago tourism professor Neil Carr said anyone who travels at present needs to be prepared for their plans to be derailed.

Air New Zealand canceled multiple flights over the July school holidays as a result of bad weather and staff sickness.

Jericho Rock-Archer

Air New Zealand canceled multiple flights over the July school holidays as a result of bad weather and staff sickness.

“If people are willing and able to cope with the potential of disruption such as delays and being separated from luggage, then air travel is fine. However, if there is not the flexibility in your life to cope with such disruptions it may not be the time to travel via air.

“Personally, unless I needed to travel by air I wouldn’t be at the moment, but that is simply because I don’t need the added hassle in my life.”

Today’s travel woes are primarily pandemic-induced pain. A couple of years ago, demand was virtually zero. Now, it’s approaching, and in some cases at or surpassing, 2019 levels. The faster-than-expected recovery has left airlines, airports and ground handling companies in New Zealand and overseas flailing without the staff they laid off and planes they retired when they feared for their survival.

Carr said travelers in New Zealand and elsewhere should expect a higher level of disruption than they were used to pre-pandemic for some time to come.

“Put simply, the industry does not have the staffing levels to prevent the disruptions we are seeing.”

Domestic disruption should ease somewhat now kids have returned to school but, with Covid-19 still prevalent, staff sickness could continue to plague airlines well into the future.

Long lines at Wellington Airport over the July school holidays.

Justin Wong / Stuff

Long lines at Wellington Airport over the July school holidays.

Air New Zealand has said it is looking to hire more than 1000 new employees, including 70 pilots and 500 cabin crew, but this may prove difficult in the tight labor market.

In Europe, airlines, airports and ground handling staff are struggling to find the staff they need amid low unemployment and rising inflation leading to higher pay demands. Many who worked in jobs such as ground handling and security have moved to new roles with better conditions and pay, and some existing staff aren’t happy either. Scandinavian pilots, Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese cabin crew and Italian air traffic controllers are among those to have striked in recent weeks.

“Getting rid of staff is depressingly easy,” Carr said. “As the industry is now being reminded, hiring new staff is far harder. Unemployment is low, consequently the availability of appropriately skilled people is low. The people the industry removed from its wage bill are not simply sitting around waiting to get their old jobs back, they have moved on. “

Until staffing levels are high enough to cope with both high demand and high levels of staff sickness, air travel disruption will remain “a fact of life”, he said.

On the upside, the aviation sector has plenty of motivation to improve things. Disruption dents its image and consumer confidence and, consequently, its profit margins. As such, Carr is confident it will get its act together eventually.

London's Heathrow Airport has capped passenger numbers over the peak summer period in an effort to minimize disruption.

Frank Augstein / AP

London’s Heathrow Airport has capped passenger numbers over the peak summer period in an effort to minimize disruption.

“How long will it take? Longer than everyone would like unfortunately, but (the current disruption) is certainly not a new norm. “

Aviation commentator Irene King said the sector is probably little more than 65 per cent operative at present.

“It is what it is, and if you want to travel or need to travel you have to accept there will be differences, which will probably be around for another year to 18 months.”

New Zealanders should prepare for Europe-style chaos over summer as demand increases still further, she said.

“Welcome to our summer potentially… Travelers expectations are high. They tend to remember what it was like before the pandemic and forget it’s really hard to turn back on a global system – it’s going to take 18 months before things stablise. “

Flight Center general manager of leisure brands, Heidi Walker is slightly more optimistic, saying she expects things to return “to a sense of normal” as we move into the new year.

“The situation is improving week by week as more people are recruited and re-trained and teething issues are ironed out,” she said.

Air New Zealand’s call center recruitment drive does seem to be reaping results. According to its website, wait times are now sitting at about an hour for domestic and trans-Tasman travel, and 45 minutes for longer-haul international trips – a marked improvement on the hours-long waits customers had experienced previously. And it pays to remember that domestic services are often disrupted in winter.

“I can remember one time when Wellington Airport was closed for three days due to a particularly stubborn weather system,” King said. “July school holidays have always been very tricky on the domestic network. Wellington is such a key hub that when it gets disrupted those disruptions become quite extensive. “

Both Carr and King recommend planning for disruption if and when you decide to fly. This includes ensuring you allow extra time to get to your destination – perhaps arrive two days before an event instead of one – and making sure you have enough in your hand luggage to tide you over if your checked bag is misplaced.

Other tips for surviving the current travel chaos with sanity at least largely intact include using a travel agent so they can sort out any issues that arise, knowing what you’ll do if your flight is canceled or your bag goes missing, tracking your luggage, traveling with carry-on luggage only, and taking out travel insurance at the time of booking.

“If we build flexibility in and it proves to be unnecessary then bonus,” Carr said. “If it’s needed, then we have it and our stress levels are much reduced…

“Think of flexibility as insurance. We buy insurance because we want to offset the risk of the cost of bad things happening. If we don’t take out insurance, then we have to take on the risk associated with doing so. If we can’t build in flexibility then we have to travel with eyes wide open or change our plans. “

That said, horror stories about nightmare trips can make the disruption seem more widespread than it really is. After all, flights that go ahead as scheduled don’t make headlines.

“I think people have to expect some level of disruption – it’s a way of life – but remember there’s a very good chance you will experience no disruption at all,” King said. “We have got so used to everything running smoothly, but weather, sickness and aircraft engineering issues are nothing new. What is new is that we are still restoring a global transport system, and that takes time. ”

If you’d like to wait until the worst of the disruption is over, Walker said now is the time to get the best prices for travel in 2023.

“Booking in advance can mean you can make the most of the best deals that may be in high demand during popular times like school holidays. Having a holiday set in stone for a few months’ time also gives you something to look forward to. “

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