What to expect from fall air travel

Ellie and Ryan Weseloh feel lucky to have escaped the worst of what the summer brought for air travelers.

They didn’t fully bypass flight cancellations and delays. Air travel nearly wreaked havoc on a large reunion as other family members struggled to get across the country, and some eventually gave up and drove long distances to the gathering, they said. But the Weselohs’ flight made it, and cancellations and delays on the other international and domestic flights the Chicago couple took this summer were kept to a minimum.

Still, they’re rethinking travel to a family wedding this fall. Their concern now is the high price of the hotel and airfare.

The busy summer season was again marked by flyers eager to get out after years of delayed travel, but also by high prices, canceled flights and delays that left passengers sitting in airports or on the tarmac. As another holiday weekend approaches, followed by the typically slower fall travel season, airlines and travelers are adjusting their habits and expectations.

Major carriers have been hiring and are adjusting schedules, contending not only with their own staff shortages but with staffing limitations in airports and air traffic control towers that they have said posed challenges. Whether those measures are enough to improve service could determine how many passengers are willing to continue flying, as an uncertain economy looms and pent-up demand from the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

“I’m very concerned that if airlines don’t do a better job as we enter the fall, they will be chilling passenger demand for the holiday season,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group.

More cancellations and delays are common in the summer, when unpredictable weather can keep planes on the ground. Still, it has been a difficult summer for travelers.

A higher share of flights nationwide were canceled or delayed in June, July and August than during pre-pandemic summer 2019, according to FlightAware. Flight delays out of O’Hare International Airport hovered around 23% during the summer months — compared with about 24% nationwide — and at Midway International Airport between 38% and 41% of flights were delayed.

At the same time, passengers were paying more for flights: 34% more in June than the year before, and 28% more in July, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More back-to-back weather systems are posing challenges for airlines, and key to their ability to recover from those systems are reserves of staff, flight crews and equipment, Harteveldt said. Even as airlines hire to build back their workforces, some are paring back their schedules in the fall to build in more buffer, including in Chicago, where United and American airlines operate major hubs at O’Hare.

While that should help with airline operations, the downside for travelers is that it could mean less convenient flights and higher airfare, as capacity remains lower than it might otherwise be, he said.

In many cases, flights are being consolidated, which would have a limited effect on passengers, said Mike Arnot, an industry commentator and spokesperson for aviation data company Cirium.

“That said, some smaller routes between hubs and smaller cities are being eliminated entirely,” he said. “At O’Hare, American has reduced capacity between there and destinations like Dallas, Cincinnati and Cleveland.”

In a statement, an American Airlines spokesperson said such adjustments are a typical part of planning, as schedules are published nearly a year in advance and then tweaked closer in as airline executives make operating decisions.

“Of course, we’re going to do things to make sure that we run the airline as reliably as possible and also take into account more extreme variability in operating conditions,” CEO Robert Isom said during a July earnings call with analysts and reporters. “We’re doing that by pulling the schedule down a little bit as we go into the third quarter. But we hope that all the work that we’ve done puts us in a position where we can restore service, get back up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Airlines have ramped up hiring this year, which will also likely help fall travel, especially with long lines in airports, Harteveldt said. But carriers face difficult hiring markets, training time and a lack of veteran employees as more new hires are brought in, he said.

Airlines have faced a pilot shortage since before the pandemic, but this year also hired thousands of people to work in maintenance, at airports and in other roles. Chicago-based United has hired 1,000 people for local roles this year and aims to add 300 more as the carrier looks toward its schedule next spring, company executives said.

“The idea is, ‘Get them trained,'” said Omar Idris, United’s vice president at O’Hare. “It’s a long training window, there’s a lot of lead time, there’s background checks that have to happen. There’s proficiency that has to be gained. So we want these employees that we’re hiring today, in the late summer and early fall, to be in tiptop readiness for spring break and summer.”

At a recent job fair in the atrium of the United Center, company representatives were interviewing candidates for baggage handlers, cargo loaders and similar roles and offering jobs on the spot. They were screening potential flight attendants, who would have to apply and then undergo lengthy training, and recruiting for roles in the corporate office, aircraft maintenance and customer service.

On one side of the atrium, vendors affiliated with United were also recruiting for roles with a catering company and to provide airport wheelchair service.

United was satisfied with its company staffing levels this summer after recruiting efforts earlier in the year, but saw challenges in staffing for support fields like catering and cabin cleaning, Idris said. United has also cited air traffic control staffing as a reason for delays.

But at O’Hare, Idris said United’s on-time performance this summer was better than it had been before the pandemic. He attributed it partly to the end of a 16-year runway construction project, which has freed up additional runways for use.

There might be more good news for travelers. Although higher than the year before, airfares began falling in June and July compared to earlier months.

Some of that is typical, as fares are often cheaper in the fall than during peak travel months in the summer. But Scott Keyes, founder of the website Scott’s Cheap Flights, expects fares to return closer to a kind of normal as oil prices decrease and pent-up demand among vacationers gives way to sticker shock.

“That pent-up demand is, at the end of the day, discretionary,” he said.

So far, demand for the fall seems to still be strong, according to Paul Jacobs, general manager and vice president of Kayak North America. Searches for domestic and international flights are still higher than they were last year, according to data provided by the travel website. In Chicago, more people are searching for domestic flights to the city, but searches from Chicago to another US city are down.

“All indications are that consumers still want to travel. Demand is high,” he said. “Are they frustrated? I’m sure they are, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of places people still want to go, and a lot of makeup travel they’re still doing.”

A survey conducted by Harteveldt’s Atmosphere Research Group at the start of the summer cast doubt on vacationers’ continued willingness to travel. Out of 1,770 leisure travelers asked how likely they were to travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas, based on the delays and cancellations up to that point, 17% said they were less likely.

Harteveldt doesn’t expect the full 17% will opt out of flying for the fall and winter holidays, but he is concerned that failure to improve service could cause a sharp drop-off in passengers. Performance over Labor Day weekend will be one signal of what’s to come, he said.

Already, cancellations and delays this summer have Molly Kastner wondering whether the company she works with will adjust the way it handles clients’ fall travel, she said as she came into O’Hare for business.

When the New Jersey-based blueberry farm she works with had an event in Kansas City in July, several attendees weren’t able to make it because of flight problems. In some cases, by the time they could get rebooked, the short two-hour event was over.

She wonders whether this fall the company will have to fly clients in a day early to ensure they can make it in.

“To be proactive with it,” she said. “Just expecting delays.”

sfreishtat@chicagotribune.com

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