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holiday travel warning

Flying for the Holidays? Things Could Get Messy…

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You've been warned: Brace for turbulence if you're hitting the skies for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years. And no, we're not talking about rough air.

Even in normal times, traveling over the holidays can be a stressful, unpredictable experience. Airports and planes alike are packed. Airfare tends to skyrocket on peak travel days as people rush home by the millions to get back with family.

But these aren't normal times. Travel may not have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels yet, but a mix of factors could lead to massive disruptions as Americans return to the skies for the first bona fide holiday travel season since 2019.

Here's why we're worried.


Airlines Can't Stop Mass Cancellations

We've seen it again and again (and again) over the last year: Airlines canceling hundreds – if not thousands – of flights over the course of just a few days, scrubbing a quarter or more of their flights and stranding customers.

And it just seems to be getting worse. Here's a brief rundown:


delta plane 

Each situation was different, but they all come down to the same root cause: Airlines have stretched themselves too thin. Throw any wrench into the mix – whether it's a bad storm, labor issue, or IT disruption – and everything falls apart fast.

Let's rewind. When travel demand disappeared in March 2020, airlines were forced to shrink into survival mode. They each downsized by the thousands through furloughs, early retirements, and buyout packages. That was great to stem their financial losses … but that was then.

Now, 2 million-plus Americans are flying almost every day, and airlines want to carry everyone they can to make up for a horrible year. Despite expansions, hiring sprees, and bringing planes back out of the desert, they can't scale up to full strength fast enough.

That's why Delta is still struggling with hours-long wait times at its call centers. That's why airlines have called on volunteers to help clean and staff lounges. And that's why flights keep getting canceled.

what to do when your flight is canceled 

So why could the next few months be so bad? Demand is always highest over the holidays, and airlines can't help themselves. If everything goes perfectly – clear skies, no drama with pilots or flight attendants, no IT hiccups – flights will get in and out on time.

But this is the air travel industry, an endlessly complex business where the smallest issue can start a domino effect, creating bigger and bigger problems. And airlines no longer have the wiggle room to recover fast when things unravel.

Maybe airlines have learned their lesson. After its latest meltdown, Southwest said it would trim its schedule in December to avoid a repeat.

We just think you're better off hoping for the best … but preparing for the worst.

Read more: What to Do When an Airline Cancels Your Flights


TSA Lines Could Be Understaffed

There's a serious problem brewing at airports that could mean much longer lines at security checkpoints across the country … at a time when long lines are already expected.

Here's what it boils down to: 40% of TSA security agents are still unvaccinated, according to the agency's administrator. President Joe Biden's vaccination mandate for federal employees kicks in Nov. 22 – just three days before Thanksgiving.

Unless the TSA can boost those vaccination rates in a hurry, there's a major staffing shortage looming just as we round into the busiest travel period of the year. In fact, it may already be too late to avoid some issues.

“We are building contingency plans, for if we do have some staffing shortages as a result of this, but I hope to avoid that,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CNN earlier this month.

airport security lines


Bottom Line

We hope we're wrong, but the warning signs are flashing. This could be a frustrating holiday travel season. Be prepared for the worst.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

4 Responses

  • Delta has already been cutting back. I’m traveling on 12/24, MSP-MCO. We were on an 8 PM flight. That has been changed two times now. The first time we got put on a 5 PM flight. Now, we’re on the 1 PM flight and that’s the latest flight of the day. Keeping my fingers crossed we make it!

  • Further complicating air travel is that testing protocols continue and will continue to be an unmitigated nightmare for international travel as well. Even fully vaxxed I’m required to test before I return from Italy early next week. And if I test positive? I’m stuck until a negative test. Who besides a single (not married) idiot like me who can work remote and has the resources to stay a little longer if needed is going to “test” this scenario? Oh, and I had to pay $300 out of pocket for an immediate PCR test before leaving the US because CVS couldn’t guarantee my results in time before I needed to leave for the airport. Utter lunacy. And now the airlines are even in deeper trouble because holiday travelers are not high yield passengers. Biz travelers and international travelers are where the money is (as a former Delta employee I’m well aware of this). So airlines are going to ramp up and hire thousands for the most price/sensitive passengers over a very short window then it’s back to winter and still no biz travel and risky international travel? Yeah, good luck with that. Same with the TSA. Contingency plans? Yeah right. Aviation is and will continue to be an unmitigated mess until all testing requirements are dropped. And with this administration good luck with that. After this experience I will not fly international again until all testing is squelched. It’s just too anxiety inducing. Oh, and as an added attraction, I counted having to wear a mask uninterrupted for almost 24 hours from the time I got on MARTA in Atlanta to my flights from Atlanta to Charlotte to Rome. What fun. Again I’m fully vaxxed. For the topper, it was such a treat hearing the threatening language over the PA of breaking federal law and potential banishment for life on both carriers I used for any mask violation. Such joy. Why bother I ask? Drive or stay home.

    • To each his own, Christopher. We just returned from a month in France and Germany. We applied for our QR Code for vaccination proof in France 2 weeks before departure, but we’re pleased to get “converted from CDC” for a nominal €20 each in Paris the day after arrival, and the France.gov records did arrive by email a few days later…not perfect, but functional. As for testing for return to the US, pharmacies all over Paris, and in many smaller cities in both France and Germany, provide the needed antigen test in 15 minutes for €25 (citizens are free, of course). It seems the price gouging and procedural challenges are characteristics of the US non-systems. EU mandates on masks, testing and positive identification (easy on the available government sponsored smartphone apps) for vaccination or tests worked much better for us in Europe, whether traveling by plane or train, than at home. Maybe there is a message here? Perhaps something about “community” rather than “independence”.

      • Jim, I’m vaxxed so stuff it. I also wear my mask willingly when on the plane, in the airport, and on public transportation. So don’t lump me in with the anti-vax wingnuts. Imagine if you’d tested false positive or really had contracted COVID. You know how little risk you pose being vaxxed right? Following the science? You’d be singing a very different tune if forced to quarantine for two weeks. Or worse if your wife or child was forced to and you along with them. Or do you leave them behind? Talk about community. Do you have any issue with tens of thousands coming over the border unvaxxed? Are they being tested for Covid? No? But force vaxxed Americans to test negative before being allowed back into our own country. Community? What a trope. Please be more imaginative and stop reading cue cards from CNN. Seriously sanctimonious comment. I can’t wait to hear that Biden and his wife and their entire entourage was tested before returning from their Rome trip. Yeah. Right.

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