No letup in sight for summer air travel woes

Magenet Magenet

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In this week’s developments, the problems of excessive flight cancellations and delays look like they will continue through the peak summer season; Spirit Airlines delays a shareholder vote on a Frontier merger as it studies the latest JetBlue offer; low-cost Breeze Airways puts off its Los Angeles debut as it slows down growth plans; United’s Star Alliance will add a non-airline member and American’s Oneworld will take on its third Middle Eastern partner; China eases mandatory COVID-19 quarantine rules; Air New Zealand unveils plans to add economy class bunk beds to its long-haul 787 fleet; Alaska Airlines and American open up new award booking options on international partner carriers; American and British Airways will consolidate flight activities at London Heathrow terminals. 

Even though several major airlines have cut back their original summer schedules to minimize last-minute cancellations as they struggle with staffing issues, it’s starting to look like schedule disruptions such as those widely anticipated for the Fourth of July weekend are likely to continue in the weeks ahead. Earlier this week, as the holiday approached, airlines were already recording flight cancellation and delay numbers well above average. By the end of June, Newsweek reported, total flight cancellations for 2022 already surpassed the number for all of 2021, and this year is on track to become the worst ever for cancellations. “The misery suffered by U.S. air travelers in 2022 is set to continue as airline experts warn there is no quick fix to the industry’s problems,” the publication said.

As for the Fourth of July weekend itself, Delta took the unusual step earlier this week of allowing all customers to rebook flights scheduled for July 1 through 4 without facing change fees or paying for fare differentials — something airlines normally do only for specific airports when they know major bad weather is coming in. Rebooked trips must be to the same destination and must take place by July 8. The airline said it expects passenger numbers this weekend “not seen since before the pandemic,” and that despite its best efforts to staff up, “some operational challenges are expected this holiday weekend.”

The airlines might not have such operational challenges without the big upsurge in traveler numbers this summer as coronavirus concerns seem to have evaporated. During most days in May and June, the number of individuals screened at TSA’s airport checkpoints topped 2 million — several hundred thousand a day higher than at the same time last year, with numbers growing ever closer to 2019 levels. Mainstream media are warning all summer vacationers to expect problems for their peak-season flights. Consider some of the headlines this week: “Welcome to summer travel. It’s hell” (Washington Post); “Why you’re going to hate traveling this summer” (CNN); “Summer air travel is a mess” (CNBC); and “Airlines struggle to meet demand in chaotic summer travel season” (The Hill).

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks during a daily press briefing in April 9, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The major U.S. carriers are apparently getting a little angry about all the bad press coming their way and are trying to make the point that they’re not the only ones to blame for the summer travel mess. Airlines for America, the big carrier trade organization, sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg noting that major airlines have already reduced schedules by 15% for June through August, accelerated hiring efforts for all types of employees, given travelers more flexibility for itinerary changes, and created new ways for passengers to rebook without standing in line. Despite the industry’s best efforts, the letter said, “not every air traffic variable is within an airline’s control. For instance, one of our members estimates that air traffic control related issues were a factor in at least one-third of recent cancellations.” While traffic restrictions are to be expected in bad weather conditions, the letter said, “we have also observed that FAA ATC (air traffic control) staffing challenges have led to traffic restrictions under blue sky conditions.”

Buttigieg had already put the airlines on notice that he’ll be watching their performance over the holiday weekend and beyond, and on Capitol Hill, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont this week urged the DOT Secretary to crack down on carriers that can’t meet customer expectations, especially in a time when airfares are skyrocketing. Among other remedies, Sanders suggested that DOT should fine airlines $55,000 per passenger “for every flight cancellation they know can’t be fully staffed.”

A JetBlue Airlines plane takes off near Spirit Airlines planes at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in May 2022.

A JetBlue Airlines plane takes off near Spirit Airlines planes at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in May 2022.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The drama is continuing in the monthslong battle for control of Spirit Airlines. Both Frontier Airlines and JetBlue are bidding to acquire control of their low-cost competitor, and after each suitor had revised their offers in recent days, Spirit’s board of directors delayed a scheduled June 30 shareholder vote on the board’s preferred course of action — i.e., to approve the Frontier deal. That vote will now be held July 8, the board said, to give it more time “to continue discussions” with both Frontier and JetBlue. On June 29, JetBlue issued an open letter to Spirit shareholders arguing why its proposal is the better deal for them.


JetBlue alleged in its letter that “multiple Spirit directors have significant ties to Frontier’s controlling shareholder, Bill Franke, resulting in a conflicted Spirit board more focused on securing an inferior transaction with Frontier than maximizing values for its own shareholders.” After Spirit postponed the shareholder vote, JetBlue said it took that as a signal that Spirit shareholders “clearly were not supportive of the Frontier transaction.” Spirit has long maintained that a key factor in its support of the Frontier merger is its concern that the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust regulators would never permit a JetBlue-Spirit combination, especially since DOJ is already suing to block JetBlue’s Northeast Alliance with American Airlines due to the amount of market power it would give the two carriers in that region.

Fast-growing low-cost carrier Breeze Airways is slowing down its route expansion. The airline started flying its new two-class Airbus A220s out of San Francisco International in May to Richmond, Virginia; Louisville, Kentucky; and Charleston, South Carolina, and it was due to begin operations at Los Angeles International this week, but it didn’t. According to The Points Guy, the airline decided to decelerate its growth as it faces some of the same issues as other U.S. carriers, including staff shortages. It had originally planned to start flying from LAX to Providence, Rhode Island; Norfolk, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia, this week, but those routes will now be delayed until next February. LAX flights to Westchester County Airport in New York are being pushed back from Sept. 7 to Nov. 2, The Points Guy reported. Breeze service from Las Vegas to Huntsville, Alabama, and to Charleston, South Carolina, is being put off from early August to early September, and some seasonal routes are ending early. Breeze is still slated to launch flights from San Francisco to San Bernardino on Aug. 4 and to Westchester County, New York, on Nov. 2.  

A Lufthansa airplane lands at Frankfurt Airport on March 2020.

A Lufthansa airplane lands at Frankfurt Airport on March 2020.

Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Two global airline alliances are planning to add new members. United’s Star Alliance is expected to announce next week that it will welcome its first non-airline partner into the group: Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail network. There are no details yet — e.g., when it will begin or what kind of benefits might be available to Star Alliance elite fliers — but it makes sense considering that Lufthansa is one of the alliance’s founding members, and that it already has intermodal ticket sales with the railroad, with easy connections via an on-site rail station in Terminal 1 of Frankfurt Airport, Lufthansa’s main hub. Adding a rail partner is also in line with a growing trend among European nations to steer travelers to trains instead of planes for short-haul journeys.

Meanwhile, the American Airlines/British Airways Oneworld Alliance is reportedly planning to add Oman Air as its third member carrier in the Middle East, along with Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian. The new membership isn’t expected to take effect for another two years. Oman Air, a relatively small carrier with just 50 aircraft, already flies to five hubs of existing Oneworld members: Amman, Jordan; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Doha, Qatar; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and London Heathrow, and it has code-share agreements with Oneworld members Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, Royal Jordanian and SriLankan Airlines.  

China’s COVID restrictions for visitors, so tough that they have deterred most international travelers for the past two years, were revised this week so that now they’re only half as tough. Previously, inbound travelers were required to quarantine in a government-approved facility for 14 to 21 days. Under the new rules, according to the Washington Post, “travelers and close contacts will now spend seven days in a quarantine facility and self-monitor at home for three days.” The Chinese have pursued a rigid zero-tolerance policy toward the disease, including recent widely publicized total lockdowns of Shanghai and parts of Beijing. The government is reportedly planning to allow more international flights into the country in the second half of this year.

Air New Zealand's new Skynest is available on "ultra-longhaul" flights to Auckland from Chicago and New York.

Air New Zealand’s new Skynest is available on “ultra-longhaul” flights to Auckland from Chicago and New York.

Courtesy of Air New Zealand

Is this the future of trans-Pacific travel? A few years ago, Air New Zealand introduced a new concept called the Skycouch for long-haul economy class travelers. It’s a row of three seats with footrests that can lift all the way up to create generous space for lying down and sleeping across those seats. Now the Kiwi carrier is expanding on that idea with plans for new interiors in all its long-haul Boeing 787s, to be rolled out in 2024. One piece of that new design is Skynest, “the world’s first sleep pods in the sky for Economy travelers,” the airline said.

The Skynests — which will be available only on its “ultra-longhaul” aircraft (like those flying nonstop to Auckland from Chicago and New York) — are essentially narrow, one-person, lie-flat bunk beds stacked three high, with a total of six bunks in the front of the economy cabin. The bunks are 80 inches long and 23 wide, and they come with bedding and privacy curtains. (According to Australia’s Executive Traveller, which got an early look at the Skynest beds, passengers can only reserve them in four-hour blocks, with the bedding renewed before a new person takes their turn. No word yet on pricing.) The planes will have several other seating/sleeping options, including the Skycouch.

In the front cabin will be a few Business Premier Luxe seats, a step up from the usual Business Premier seats, offering a closing door and space for two persons to dine. Next are the Business Premier seats, then Premium Economy (“where you can recline at leisure without interrupting the person behind”), Economy Stretch (extra legroom seats) and regular economy. 

An Air Tahiti Nui Airbus A340 aircraft parked on a service ramp or apron away from the passenger gates at LAX.

An Air Tahiti Nui Airbus A340 aircraft parked on a service ramp or apron away from the passenger gates at LAX.

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

As of this week, frequent Alaska Airlines fliers who belong to the airline’s Mileage Plan can redeem their miles for award travel on Air Tahiti Nui. The two carriers introduced mutual mileage-earning privileges this spring. The French Polynesian carrier flies to Papeete and to Paris from Los Angeles and is due to launch Seattle-Papeete flights Oct. 5. Meanwhile, American Airlines AAdvantage members can now redeem miles for travel to and within South America on AA’s Brazilian partner carrier GOL, booking the award trips via aa.com.

In airport news, travelers heading to London on American Airlines or its partner British Airways are going to see some terminal changes in the days ahead. Starting July 12, all AA flights to London Heathrow will use Terminal 3, including those currently parking at Terminal 5, like its flights from Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami. The carriers’ Oneworld partner Iberia will also shift flights from T5 to T3. American’s move of all flights into Terminal 3 comes several months earlier than previously planned. At the same time, British Airways will move a number of flights out of Terminal 3 to its LHR base in Terminal 5. That includes its U.S. routes to Las Vegas, Austin, Phoenix and Orlando, along with several European routes. 

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