In recent years, "Summer travel, yes!" has been displaced by "Summer travel, yuck!" And this summer, the yuck factor will be at an all-time high. Discomfort, inconvenience, and higher prices will characterize the airline flights to and from traditional summertime seaside frolics and family reunions. That is, if you can get a seat at all.
It's the proverbial perfect storm. First, many of the largest airlines have been cutting back on the number of flights they operate on domestic routes, in order to sidestep the profit-sapping price wars waged by the low-cost carriers. And second, demand for travel has increased to all-time highs. Decreasing capacity and increasing demand is a classic economic equation for a pinch. In the travel industry, that pinch translates as flights filled to overflowing.
The largest 10 airlines have already reported record load factors (the percentage of seats sold) for March and April. In both months, load factors exceeded 80 percent—a level generally considered to be full since it's a broad average of popular and unpopular flights. Historically, summer flights run much fuller than spring flights, so expectations are that between Memorial Day and Labor Day, load factors will rise further and hover close to 90 percent.
Adding insult to injury, travelers will pay more for that discomfort than they did a year ago. The Air Transport Association notes that the full-service carriers increased their domestic yields by double-digit percentages in February, March, and April. I expect that trend to continue throughout the summer partly because price-driven competition by discount carriers is being throttled back. Independence Air couldn't sustain its low-fare business model and stopped flying. And JetBlue has racked up two consecutive quarterly losses and recently signaled that its ticket prices will have to rise to cover costs.
Planning to fly during the summer months? Congratulations and condolences. The following are some road-tested tactics for making the best of a challenging situation.
Check in online
The airlines have a tendency to oversell the benefits of technology when, in fact, the real benefits are to the airlines themselves in the form of lower operating costs. But online check-in is a true boon to flyers, allowing them to generate a boarding pass on their home computers and skip the ticket-counter line. Online check-in's cousin, the airport check-in kiosk, also gives travelers an alternative to queuing up at the ticket counter, although kiosk lines can sometimes stretch to irksome lengths.
Arrive at the airport early
There are two issues here. First, airport-area parking lots in many regions will be filled to capacity. Travelers should factor in extra time in case they're forced to seek alternative parking arrangements. Second, the lines at the airports will be long. That includes lines to check bags curbside, lines at the ticket counters, and lines at security checkpoints. Leaving plenty of time to get to the departure gate will reduce the risk of missing the flight as well as keeping stress in check.
Fly early in the day
With flights running full, you have a higher-than-usual chance of being bumped, due either to overbooking or a last-minute change to an aircraft with fewer seats. Plus, there's the ever-present chance that the airline will cancel a flight due to mechanical problems or inclement weather.
While airlines are responsible for accommodating bumped or stranded flyers, seats on alternative flights may be harder to come by this summer. Passengers on an early flight simply have a better chance of being rebooked on another flight the same day, rather than being forced to wait until the following day, if not later.
Pay extra attention to seating
Planes will be packed so you'll want to avoid the middle seat in a row of five seats abreast. Check the airline's website and, if it supports online seating assignments, lock in an aisle or window seat so you'll only have a seatmate on one side. Bear in mind that seat assignments can be changed until shortly before the flight departs. Even if you arrive at the airport with an undesirable seat on your reservation, the gate agent might be able to remedy the situation at check-in.
If the flight is a long one, consider booking a flight earlier or later in the day if it offers more comfortable seating options.
If ever there were a time to upgrade to a roomy business- or first-class seat, this summer is it.
Use frequent flyer miles to upgrade. Purchase a standby upgrade, if your airline offers it. Consider buying a one-year subscription to United's Economy Plus Access for $299. The price is worth the privilege of booking seats in United's premium coach section with as much as five extra inches of legroom. If you're flying Northwest, look into its Coach Choice program. For a $15 surcharge per flight, you get access to select coach-cabin aisle and exit-row seats with more legroom.
The fewer the number of bags you take, and the lighter those bags are, the faster you'll get to the gate and the less you'll pay for such extras as curbside check-in and overweight surcharges. If possible, squeeze everything into a single bag that meets the airlines' size restrictions for carry-on luggage.
Leisure travelers tend to depart and return on weekends, to make the most of their vacation time. You can avoid some airport and flight congestion by scheduling departures and returns away from those weekend chokepoints.