How to survive an air travel system meltdown

26 May 2023
How to survive an air travel system meltdown

Like many people, you’ve probably got summer travel plans. If you want those travel plans to come off without a hitch, however, you might be disappointed this year. 

No one can predict the future, but it’s important to pay attention to what the travel industry is saying (that’s a long list of warnings right there).

Here are the highlights:

  • The FAA predicts a 45% increase in delays and the continued shortage of air traffic controllers could further disrupt summer travel.
  • The U.S. Travel Association’s quarterly survey reports 26% of Americans plan to increase their summer leisure travel and warns this summer will be a test of the air travel system.
  • Airlines warn that things could be less than ideal. Many have trimmed their schedules already out of fears the pilot shortage will mean that can’t operate all the flights.
  • Aviation infrastructure and technology remain chronically underfunded and woefully behind, with problems driven by a host of missed opportunities.

Summer airfare searches are up 25% compared to the same time last year, according to Expedia. Airlines are still operating fewer flights than pre-pandemic, which means flights will be full.

Add a big thunderstorm or hurricane in the mix and you could be wishing you staycationed instead. 

If the predictions are right, and we can’t know that they are, what can you do to survive a summer travel meltdown? Read on to find out.

Waiting summer traveler gif

Avoid airports and routes with a bad history

Well, that’s obvious, you might be thinking. You might also ask, “how do I know what airports and routes are the most delayed?

According to Department of Transportation data, the following airports had the highest percentage of delayed flights (around 60%) last summer:

  • Chicago Midway MDW
  • New York’s JFK
  • Denver International DIA

The most delayed routes for the same period were:

  • JFK to Atlanta
  • Fort Lauderdale to Newark
  • Charleston to LaGuardia

The average delay was between 65 and 70 minutes. Think about that when you have a tight connection!

Book early and nonstop

Always try to book the first flight of the day and fly nonstop whenever possible. Both actions reduce the chances of a delay or disruption. 

Pro tip: Bookmark the USDOT’s Fly Rights page so you know your rights when things go wonky.

Don’t check your luggage

Keeping your luggage with you means you are more mobile and you have options. You can more easily take an alternate flight or switch to a train, for example. 

Pro tip: Pack security-friendly snacks, a reusable water bottle, and a book. You may need them.

Keep an eye on the weather

Summer is the ideal time for thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes―all of which cause havoc with flight patterns. Bad weather in one region quickly affects the entire country because of how airlines reuse planes and crews for multiple trips each day. 

Pro tip: See one of our most popular articles of all time: How to check the weather before you travel to learn when and how to check the weather before your trip (flying or driving).

Work with a travel advisor

Since the pandemic, more travelers are opting to work with a professional travel advisor (formerly, a travel agent).

A travel advisor assists with planning and booking trips, but most importantly they can provide support in real time when a trip goes sideways. 

They are not free, but the service fee of between $50 and $250 could look priceless when you really need to talk to a live person. See Chris Elliott’s Ultimate Guide to Finding a Travel Advisor for more information.

Give yourself extra time

There are many ways that having a little extra time can be helpful. 

Pad your trip with an extra day for wiggle room if your trip involves a fixed-date event like a wedding or cruise departure, for example.

With so many people planning to travel this summer, airport parking lots could be full. Consider pre-booking a parking spot, if that’s an option, or taking a ride-share instead.

Knowing what is the best time to get to the airport helps too. See our recommendations for What’s the Best Airport Arrival Time.

Have a good travel insurance plan

According to a 2023 winter travel insurance survey, the top reasons people buy travel insurance in 2023 are:

  • concerns about their travel providers
  • concerns about their health

… with 70% of respondents indicating that trip cancellations and interruptions were their primary concern.

And for good reason, if you remember the 2022 summer travel season news:

  • baggage mountains at Heathrow airport (affecting more than 15,000 passengers), and
  • major flight cancellations due to pilot shortages

What’s a good travel insurance plan for this summer, you ask?

  1. One that protects the entire trip (add up all the pre-paid parts of your trip that you can’t get back). 
  2. A plan with 24/7 assistance services. Travel insurance companies have been improving these services, which can provide you with support in the event of an airline meltdown. They can help you find alternative transportation or accommodations and some even offer medical and legal advice.
  3. A plan that provides comprehensive coverage for delays, including weather. This will help if you have unexpected expenses like hotel rooms, transportation, or meals.

Caution: If you’re worried about flight cancellations, you might think a fully refundable ticket is the cheaper and better answer, and you could be right, but only if your air ticket is the only trip expense.

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.