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Will it be a busy summer for airline travel? Northeastern expert offers tips to avoid cancellations  — and headaches

An American Airlines plane at Miami International Airport.
Airports will be busy this summer, and you may have to wait, says Northeastern University air travel expert. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP)

Pilot and other staff shortages, intense media scrutiny of plane safety, unpredictable weather, a new cancellation refund policy, airports at capacity — there are many potential obstacles to a smooth flight as Memorial Day weekend kicks off the busy summer travel season.   

Northeastern University air travel expert Ravi Sarathy says “be ready to have delays.”

“If you’re a passenger, especially one taking a holiday, you might want to err on the side of trying to book your flights for early morning, when it’s more likely that your plane will be there and you’ll be able to take off,” Sarathy says.

Expect the unexpected, he says.

“Perhaps, deliberately book a ticket which has an extra hour or two of layover, which may be a little bit frustrating, but it’s better to sit in an airport for an extra hour than to not get to your connection at all.”

Headshot of Ravi Sarathy.
Northeastern Professor of International Business and Strategy Ravi Sarathy, an air travel expert, outlines several tips for avoiding the wait at airports this summer. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Transportation Security Administration is anticipating to screen a record number of travelers between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends this year, with 18 million passengers and crew expected on Memorial Day weekend alone — up 6.4% compared with last year.

The number of flights offered is also up 4% this year compared to last, according to airline trade group Airlines for America. 

Sarathy — who has been doing a fair bit of traveling domestically and internationally lately — reports that “airports are full” and at capacity.

And several factors may mean you spend more time at the airport this summer.

First, summer means summer vacations and more people traveling to big American cities and national parks, Sarathy says. 

“Overall demand usually goes up because people have more time in the summer and it’s nicer weather,” Sarathy says. 

But airline manufacturer Boeing’s troubles with both the quality and safety of its existing planes, as well as difficulty delivering new planes, means that smaller and older planes may be making trips — limiting the supply of routes and seats. 

Older planes are also more likely to have lengthy inspections and mechanical issues that may need to be addressed, Sarathy says, especially after Boeing’s highly publicized door trouble

“I think airlines are willing to say, ‘Let’s take an extra two hours on the ground to make sure there is no issue here and get complete closure before we fly off with a relatively minor issue,’” Sarathy says. 

There is also a labor shortage affecting the airlines, Sarathy says, which — although easing on the pilot side — also may limit flights and cause delays. 

Then there are the new rules regarding flight cancellations

Sarathy says it’s too early to determine whether the rules will have an effect on the number of cancellations, which are at a decade low. But he imagines that airlines will build in extra time to flights to obtain a little “wiggle room” and avoid issuing refunds for significantly changed flights, long delays, etc.

Finally, of course, is the weather — and not just locally. A thunderstorm in Atlanta can mean the plane for your flight in Boston is late and delay that flight, and so on, and so on.

“Summer is also a time of tremendously uncertain weather,” Sarathy says. “You have storms and turbulence and bad weather can cascade delays.”

So, what to do?

Again, Sarathy recommends planning for flights earlier in the day when you are more likely to have a plane available and can avoid summertime afternoon thunderstorms. Connecting flights should also have a little more wiggle room to accommodate potential delays. 

Flights at less popular times also help mitigate the crunch in at-capacity airports, Sarathy advises.

Finally, he also recommends using the TSA Pre-Check system. 

“It’s much better to get through those lines and sit at a coffee shop and wait … than have to scramble and hope you’ll make your flight,” Sarathy says.