Expect delays, cancellations and overpriced tickets flying this summer season

Delta Airlines airplane taking off from a runway
Delta Air Lines Airbus A330neo or A330-900 aircraft with neo engine option of the European plane manufacturer, as seen departing from Amsterdam Schiphol AMS EHAM International airport from Polderbaan runway and flying in the blue sky. The modern and advanced wide body airplane has the registration – tail number N421DX and is powered by 2xRR jet engines. The passenger plane is a brand new Airbus A330-900 delivered from Airbus on March 2023. Delta is a legacy US carrier with headquarters and a hub in Atlanta Georgia and connects America to the Dutch capital on a daily basis. Delta DL DAL is the second largest airline in the world and member of SkyTeam airline aviation alliance. The global aviation industry is showing growth in passenger traffic and cargo with higher demand, more than ever after the 2 previous years with the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic era, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via AP

Expect long lines, packed flights and top-dollar tickets if you travel by air this summer, according to travel experts. 

Ravi Sarathy, a Northeastern University in international business and strategy, is already loathing his next trip to Italy, which hasn’t even begun. Air travel uncertainty has become so common that Sarathy believes he will encounter delays and cancellations. 

headshot of Ravi Sarathy
Northeastern Professor of International Business and Strategy Ravi Sarathy. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

There are several factors in what is happening behind the scenes leading to this situation, says Sarathy. However, much of it boils down to air traffic control problems, high labor costs, high fuel costs, and a shortage of aircraft and pilots are leading to high demand and top-dollar tickets, he said. 

“My experience in the last few weeks is that flights are pretty full,” says Sarathy. “And you can see that at the airports in the TSA lines, even TSA PreCheck can be very crowded these days.”

The summer passenger volume will be at or above pre-pandemic levels, according to Daniel Velez, a New England Region Transportation Security Administration spokesman. 

“We are already seeing numbers hit pre-pandemic levels on a national level as well as regionally at New England airports,” says Velez. 

Booking seems robust, allowing airlines to be optimistic about maintaining fares, says Sarathy. 

It is unclear how the individual consumer will react over the next two or three months. Travelers might still feel flush and will continue to travel, Sarathy says. Or conversely, they cancel arrangements and save money for a future trip.

Last summer, from late May to mid-September, the average number of travelers per day at national TSA checkpoints was 2.2 million, up from only 600,000 during the pandemic in 2020 and slightly down from 2.5 million people in 2019. 

The cost of summer flights is also increasing after a fall in 2020. Last year, the average price for a flight between late May and mid-September was $313, up from $232 during the same time in 2021 and $201 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Fares are about 20% higher for summer tickets than last year due in part to high labor costs and climbing fuel prices compared with 2019, says Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot and spokeswoman for FlightAware. This technology company provides flight tracking data. The added costs get passed on to passengers. 

Volatile fuel costs spiked due to the war in Ukraine, and are beginning to come down, says Sarathy. However, airlines are adding that cost too to the price of tickets. 

In addition to those traveling for fun, business travel is also up 20% from before the pandemic, Bangs says, adding to the high demand. 

“We also see less flights overall in the U.S., compared to 2019—the peak of all years,” says Bangs. “Yet, especially clustered around major holiday travel periods, we’re seeing the same amount of 2019 air travelers or even more in some locations.”

Airlines are accommodating the higher demand by using larger aircraft and filling almost every seat, she says. 

Another issue remains: the pilot shortage, which isn’t impacting the top three to four carriers but affects regional and feeder carriers that have parked more than 100 aircraft because of the inability to hire pilots, says Bangs. The major airlines tap the regional airlines to fill vacancies. 

If traveling isn’t stressful enough, the U.S. Department of Transportation put into place an initiative for airlines to accommodate parents traveling with children under age 13. Airlines must guarantee that each child can sit near a parent. 

Bangs says the airlines have found different ways to fulfill this new initiative. One way is to ask other passengers—sometimes those who have paid extra to secure the seat of their choice—to give up their seats and move to accommodate a family. 

“As we move into family travel season, I would not be surprised to see a lot more families—now aware of this DOT program—asking to be seated near their children without buying tickets to make sure that happens,” says Bangs. 

Is it too late to book a summer vacation? Sarathy says it depends. 

“It’s not too late to book,” says Sarathy. “I think it’s all a matter of where you’re flying to and when you want to fly.”

According to Travel + Leisure, the cheapest flights this year might be within North America. Using data from the travel booking site Kayak, the magazine lists Houston, Texas, Toronto, Canada, and Denver, Colorado, as some of the most affordable places to travel this summer. 

Sarathy says it is best to fly midweek when prices are lower. 

If you work a typical Monday through Friday schedule and want to leave on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, “then you’re stuck,” says Sarathy. “You really don’t have that much freedom.”

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at b.treffeisen@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.