Delays and canceled flights don’t have to be the new norm

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The perfect storm for air travel anxiety is fast approaching.

Air travel volume is at over 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, with over one-half the days in June seeing over 2.3 million people passing through airport security checkpoints. This is despite air fares soaring beyond pre-pandemic levels.

To further exacerbate the situation, airlines are unable to find pilots, particularly for regional jets that serve smaller communities and feed into hub airports. In response, American Airlines will end service to four smaller cities in September. This also forces pilots to work overtime. With Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hour monthly duty limitations, many airlines are certain to have more cancellations, particularly during the last week of July and August, while thunderstorm delays likely earlier in the month force crews to work longer hours. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has asked the airlines to proactively cancel flights that they know cannot be flown, giving passengers ample warning of their plight, rather than thrusting it upon them in real-time, when alternative accommodations are more difficult, if not impossible to identify. Sounds good in theory, but it is easier said than done in practice.  

So, what can airlines do today to address the impending summer air travel Armageddon, and perhaps even better prepare to avoid such situations in the future? 

Temporarily eliminate checked baggage fees: Checked baggage fees encourage more carry-on bags, and more carry-on bags create more chaos during the check-in process. Southwest is the only major airline not to charge for checked baggage. They also get more cycles per day from their airplanes. The key is turnaround time, which Southwest does better than any other airline. Airlines still need pilots to fly airplanes, but time spent sitting at the gate eats into pilot duty time, so quick turnarounds create opportunities for more flights. Airlines make a significant amount of revenue from checked baggage fees. If this revenue can be earned with one extra flight per day per airplane, passengers will benefit across the board.

Widen ticket change footprint: Airlines permit passengers to use nonrefundable tickets as credits against future travel without any change fees. If they want to change their flight on the day of travel, going standby typically is feasible. The problem is when you want to move your flight one day before or after to avoid possible issues, including weather. Given that the delays that you foresee have not yet occurred, airlines may opt to “follow their rules” and require a repricing.

What is needed during a challenging summer travel season is even greater ticket flexibility. Allowing ticket changes over a three-day window (day of, day before and day after) without repricing is a smart idea. Allowing rerouting flights through alternative cities that have the same departure and destination, but that pass through different hub airports (like Philadelphia versus Washington Reagan on American) would also relieve some of the pressure that a highly constrained set of ticketing rules creates. If formally changing the rules is unacceptable, empower ticketing and customer service agents to make such changes upon passenger request is acceptable.  

One thing that should not be done is to relax training and minimal flying time requirements for pilots. Even dropping the requirement of a four-year degree for pilot hires is concerning. Getting a four-year degree requires some measure of discipline, which benefits pilots as they accumulate experience in more varied flying conditions. 

Changing the goal line incrementally sets a bad precedent. Even one flight incident that results in lives lost would elicit a knee-jerk reaction that will have long-term negative repercussions for the industry. Maintaining standards and continuous improvement has made air travel exceedingly safe. Any changes in this regard carry with them risks.

The 2022 summer travel period is poised with challenges, as more people take back to the skies for business and leisure travel. There are many things that are out of airlines’ control, like inclement weather. There are steps they can take before the busy July 4th travel weekend that can make for smoother sailing, particularly when the unexpected occurs, which it most certainly will.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags Airlines airtravel economy flights Fuel prices gas prices Inflation Pete Buttigieg Sheldon H. Jacobson summer travel Transportation travel

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