How Bad Will This Summer Be for Flying?

May 31, 2019

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What do travelers have to look forward to this summer besides surf, sun and fun? How about record-breaking air traffic, Instagrammably long lines at the airport and a new jet that was supposed be the workhorse of domestic routes but instead ended up being grounded for months.

Summer of hell?

On paper, it sound like it, at least when it came to flying: the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX through much of the summer and possibly longer, the redeployment of thousands of Customs and Border Protection officers to the southern border and what’s shaping up to the busiest summer travel season of all time. Even before the start of summer proper, TPG staffers and readers have been reporting worryingly long lines at the airport. How could the summer of 2019 not spell disaster for US flyers?

“On the surface, it looks worse,” Alan Bender, professor of aviation economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said in a telephone interview. “But I’m not sure that’s the reality.”

Here’s one reason why Bender is optimistic that this summer won’t be noticeably worse than previous summers: Though the loss of the 737 MAX has hurt airlines, they’ve been able to soften the blow by leasing substitute aircraft to make sure there are generally enough seats to ensure most passengers get where they’re going. Plus, added Bijan Vasigh, a professor of economics and transportation at Embry-Riddle, the fact that the 737 MAX crisis broke early in the year meant that airlines had enough time to prepare for the busiest season.

“The 737 MAX is not only grounded for two months now, but no new 737 [MAX] has been delivered, so we have a [global] shortage of 500 or 600 aircraft,” he said by telephone. “But airlines are not retiring the older aircraft, and it’s well-understood the capacity is used up during summertime — this is not just one summer, but 30 or 40 years. Airlines know about bookings months ahead of time and can deal with increased demand by adding more aircraft to the fleet or jacking up ticket prices to discourage more passengers. This is not something out of the ordinary.”

As for the CBP redeployment, it’s not yet clear when or how the 2,000 or more officers will be moved to the border with Mexico, or what effect it will have — or has had — on customs and immigration lines at airports. And both the government and the travel industry have long been well aware that each year brings more flyers — CBP spokesman Max Bluestein said his agency processed nearly 39 million travelers at international airports last summer, a more than 5% increase from 2017. At the busiest international arrival terminals, CBP officers dealt with over 3,000 passengers an hour.

“They are all equipped to deal with high demand during the summer,” Vasigh said. “For sure, we will see higher activity at airports, more delays, more cancellations. But I don’t see anything that’s a catastrophic issue. They’re naturally part of the seasonal impact of air transportation.”

Airport Customs Checkin Kiosk with US Passport
CBP officers are ready to deal with the high demand this summer but still be prepared for the inevitable delays. (Photo by asiseeit/Getty Images)

Of course, passengers still may be dealing with the fallout, from potentially shelling out for the increased fares Vasigh mentioned to enduring longer waits at the airport.

“If there’s 1 or 2% more [passengers] than usual, that could cause strain on airports and airlines, and maybe your wait time could be five to 15 minutes more than usual. But this is part of the natural progression of transportation during the summertime,” he said.

Meanwhile, with a record number of flyers and fewer aircraft, empty seats are likely to be a rare commodity at least till late August.

“There will be issues: longer lines, longer waits, your aircraft is fuller, you’re putting more burden on your gate agent, and aircraft will be overbooked and delayed,” Vasigh said.

Because airlines are already dipping into their backup plans because of the 737 MAX problem, that also means a real aviation emergency — like severe weather or another key computer-system failure — also may be more likely to cascade and affect the whole country.

“In the case of really bad weather, [the backup plans] would be more brittle,” Bender said.

But Bender actually saw a bright side to this year’s aviation woes.

“They’re going to use the planes more intensively and at odd times of the day, and have them at capacity at prime times, but the silver lining is that with fewer airplanes, at least at peak times, there’s a possibility that that would reduce delays somewhat,” he said. “It’s like on a freeway: Add a few more cars, and you have gridlock. Take away a few cars, and ….”

No matter how bad it gets, passengers can at least take solace in knowing they won’t be stuck on the tarmac for hours, thanks to the 2010 Department of Transportation regulation that forbids keeping travelers on the apron for over three hours. (Though the number of tarmac delays of over three hours is creeping back up.) And they can at least take measures to make lemonade out of any lemons they end up with.

“People need to be more flexible than ever,” Bender said. “Always try and take the first flights in the morning, because in most cases the plane has been sitting there all night, there’s less chance of severe weather and there are more connecting possibilities. And then travel, if possible, on off-peak days and go on airlines with better reputations.”

Bluestein said travelers should be prepared to be patient at airports as officials deal with the increased traffic.

Airport passengers waiting in linfe
Travelers need to be flexible and patient with their travel plans this summer. (Photo by Erlon Silva – TRI Digital/Getty Images)

“Every year, international airports across the nation may experience increased wait times during the busy summer travel season. Many factors contribute to this, including unscheduled concurrent flight arrivals, weather, or other delays,” he said in an email. “As CBP prepares for this year’s busy summer season, we encourage international travelers to plan accordingly, make truthful customs declarations, and check the CBP wait-times page for border crossing and airport wait-time information.”

Finally, remember that there’s no accounting for the weather — the single most important determinant in whether summer 2019 proves to be heavenly or hellish.

“By a country mile, whether it’s a summer of hell depends on the weather, far and away the biggest reason for delays and cancellations — and there’s no predicting how it will turn out,” Bender said. “So far, it hasn’t been very auspicious, but it’s not really anything airlines, airports and the FAA can do much about.”

Featured photo by martin-dm/Getty Images.

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