The Summer of Travel Nightmares—Or Is It?

May 31, 2023

For months now, we’ve been hearing nothing but doom and gloom headlines about summer air travel—the summer of travel hell,” it has been dubbed. Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer and traditionally one of the busiest travel periods of the year, was this year’s first big test for America’s air system.

It went off without a hitch.

I personally flew from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis Friday morning and back Monday morning. Security lines moved quickly, my flights were on time and the entire experience was painless—dare I even say, pleasant. The majority of holiday weekend travelers experienced the same. Let’s look at how this is possible, given the doom and gloom that we’ve heard about the last few months.

If there is one thing I learned working in commercial aviation, it’s that the traveling public has relatively short memories which are trumped by a deep desire to travel. Consider your last trip: if everything went smoothly, you probably haven’t thought about the flight since returning home (unless you’re an airplane nerd like me and the plane ride is a highlight of the journey!). But if everything didn’t go according to plan, more than likely, you will still get on a plane again, even with the same airline that you had challenges with. Prices and routes drive consumers choice in air travel and even passengers screaming to the gate agents (tip: don’t do this) that they will never fly that airline again, likely will.

Setting Summer 2023 Travel Expectations

But what about this year? Headlines like the ones we’ve been seeing don’t deter travel, they just set passenger expectations incredibly low. If you think that your trip is going to be awful—long lines, packed planes, delayed flights, angry passengers—and it is, you came expecting the worst. But if everything runs smoothly, like the majority of trips, your expectations have been exceeded. Both : set customers’ expectations so low that they are usually exceeded—the age-old customer service concept of under-promise and over-deliver.

Don’t get me wrong, America’s aviation industry is facing serious challenges hampered by the fact that across the industry, staffing levels have not kept up with demand. A pilot shortage, which was already significant before the pandemic, reached critical mass as too many pilots took an early retirement. Highly skilled positions, like air traffic controllers (truly the backbone of the industry), take years to train for—leaving towers understaffed, limiting capacity for air traffic and putting a strain on those who are working in these already high stress important roles. Airlines and their contractors, like many businesses, are facing a labor shortage as they struggle to fill lower wage hourly employee positions (next time you see a ramp worker at the airport, thank them for doing their backbreaking work in all weather conditions—you wouldn’t be on your way without them).

Like many of you, I’m eagerly watching what the rest of the summer looks like. I’m headed to Europe in July and expect their airports to be even busier than ours. Last summer, European airports had a particularly horrific travel season, with lines stretching down airport roadways just to get into the terminal. Key positions were severely understaffed, and the crush of “revenge travel” often proved to be too much. I’m approaching my Europe trip exactly how the airlines and Secretary Buttigieg want me to: hoping for the best and expecting the worst.

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