What Is Happening with Travel Right Now? A Pilot, Flight Attendant and Travel Agent Give Their Insights

A simple trip from New York to Los Angeles recently took me 24 hours to complete. Typically, this cross-country flight is six hours long nonstop, so to find myself in transit for that long was a shock to the system. The route I had chosen had a two-hour layover in Chicago, but a series of delays and then a last-minute cancellation left me stuck in Chicago overnight. 

Frustrated and exhausted, I began to think about the current state of travel. In talking to my fellow angry passengers and venting to family and friends, it seems these spontaneous delays and cancellations are slowly becoming the norm. It wasn’t all in our heads, either: 20 percent of flights were delayed in 2022—the highest it’s been since 2014 (not counting pandemic shutdowns)—and the FAA predicts delays will be 45 percent worse this summer, particularly in the New York and DC areas.

So what’s the deal? I turned to travel industry insiders to get a better understanding of the issue.

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According to the World Travel and Tourism Council's (WTTC) 2023 Economic Impact Research (EIR), the travel industry will have a huge upswing this year and is on track to rake in $9.5 billion, only five percent shy of the revenue it brought in pre-pandemic in 2019. And while this sounds like good news, it may not be so for people who work in the business.

“The industry has been in a transitional phase,” says Allyah McIntyre, who’s been a flight attendant for six years. “Cancellations, delays and all that are semi-normal because sometimes it’s weather, but there are cancellations due to staffing that are not as normal.”

It’s Partly a (Staffing) Supply & Demand Issue

By McIntyre’s assessment, the public got ready to pack up and begin revenge and impact traveling way before the travel industry itself got a chance to recuperate. As a result, airline staffing issues make working in the industry that much harder.

The case is especially dire when it comes to pilot shortages. "When the pandemic hit, a lot of airlines offered all these early retirement packages because they didn’t know where the industry was going,” McIntyre explains. “A lot of pilots were at retirement age or could take early retirement with all these bonuses and things being offered, and so they did.”

And the exodus out of the industry is very visible from a travel agent’s perspective as well.

“The travel industry took one of the hardest hits,” says Ashley Les, a luxury leisure and corporate travel agent. “When people could still go back to eating dinner outside, there were certain [employees] that couldn’t travel. I think some people stuck it through, but many didn’t for financial reasons, and they went elsewhere.”

State of travel rows of unclaimed luggages lined up at the airport
Craig Hastings/Getty Images

While McIntyre says replacing flight attendants may be easier, it’s not the same for pilots, given the fact that pilot training naturally takes longer.

“If they’re not training enough pilots to compensate for the amount that they lost, then things are going to be rough [because flight] routes are coming back full speed,” McIntyre says.

And with the high demand of pilots, there is also the concern that the industry might become lenient. She continues, “Pilot training used to be a lot more competitive, and because they need people so badly, there is that concern of passing people through [out of desperation] and it’s such a safety-critical job.” (To that end, a regional airline asked the FAA to reduce the number of hours a pilot needed from 1,000—with an accredited college degree—to 750, the military requirement, but that request was denied, according to Insider.)

And Partly a Tech Problem

In addition to personnel shortage, there’s also the fact that behind the scenes, the technology hasn’t exactly kept up with the times.

“Part of the problem is technology-based,” says Jessica Fisher, a female pilot in the charter space and founder of Flyjets. “There is no reason why airlines are not all integrated together from a technology perspective. If they were, it would be much easier to find reliever options in case of issues.”

In other words, the reason why travelers, like me, sometimes find themselves stranded in airports or airport hotels is because once they book a flight with one carrier, then only that carrier can handle their trip—unless they’re willing to pay for another.

“If airlines were a bit more integrated, and let’s say you were delayed from airline A, you could then book a flight out with airline B and get your funds and fees transferred,” Fisher explains. “Scheduling should all be tied together to some extent to prevent extensive delays and disruptions.”

State of travel. woman in a wicker hat and backpack at the station looking for her booking.
thianchai sitthikongsak/Getty Images

All this shifting and uncertainty also means travel agents must give their clients news that they may not want to hear—like having to dole out a bit more cash so as to better the odds of a smooth trip. “Some low-cost carriers might be a lot cheaper, but they might only have one flight instead of five,” Les says.

As it stands, traveling might be a bit rough for the foreseeable future. Even the CEO of United Airlines conceded to the notion, saying “the system simply can’t handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth,” in the coming summer months, during an earnings call in January.

But There Are Some Things You Can Do for Smoother Travel

And because things might be rough for a while, we asked our experts to share some tidbits that won’t guarantee you have a smooth trip but can at least set you up to win. Here’s their best advice:

1. Book flight earlier in the day.While delays can be caused by several things, Les says the early morning flights are a lot less likely to be stalled.

“If you’re booking one of the first flights out, the plane is there from the night before so, unless it’s really bad weather or a mechanical issue, it’s most likely going to take off,” she explains. “If you book a flight mid-morning to early afternoon, however, that plane is most likely coming from somewhere else, and it has more opportunity to be delayed on its way to you.”

2. When you have a connection, don’t book your flights back-to-back. No one wants to spend more time than they have to in an airport, however, McIntyre advises against booking connecting flights that are too close together.

“[It used to be that] the minimum connection time was one hour. Now it’s 30 minutes and you’re almost guaranteed to miss that flight,” she says. “So many people don’t look at that because [they see] the shortest duration or the cheapest [option], they book it, only to miss it almost every time.”

3. Avoid checking bags when you can.If you have the option to pack light and travel with just your carry-on luggage, Les highly encourages you do so. “Legally, your bags can’t fly without you,” she explains. That means, if your connecting flight is delayed for eight hours, for example, you don’t have the option to look at any earlier flights because your bag gets automatically loaded onto your designated next flight.  

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Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...