Remember the thousands of flight cancellations, endless lines and lost baggage nightmares from last year? Experts warn it could be even worse in 2023. Here’s how to book smarter and fly right in the midst of another Air-mageddon.

Pack your patience, travelers. Those hoping that last summer’s “airport chaos” headlines were a distant memory are in for a nasty case of déjà vu.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects 2023 summer air travel volumes to surpass pre-pandemic levels, and industry experts are warning that many of the problems that led to last year’s meltdown have not been resolved.

“This summer’s travel demand will be as strong as we’ve seen since before the pandemic, and potentially the strongest ever,” says Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “That kind of demand in a system that is woefully underfunded and understaffed is likely to create substantial frustrations among travelers.”

The FAA asked airlines to pull back slots in New York and Washington, D.C. airports this summer, reducing the number of available flights.

As the head of the non-profit trade organization representing the $1.2 trillion U.S. travel industry, Freeman worries that a repeat of last year’s air travel mayhem will hurt overall tourism spending. “More than half of Americans would travel more often, they say, for leisure in the next six months if the experience were not as much of a hassle as it is today,” Freeman says, adding that “it did not need to be this way.”

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the Air-mageddon of Summer 2022. After the aviation industry ground to a virtual halt during the pandemic, it could not ramp up fast enough to handle the massive post-pandemic crush of people finally traveling again. Tens of thousands of flights were delayed and cancelled, travelers were left stranded, countless pieces of baggage were lost, and an aging and outdated infrastructure creaked and strained under the stress of it all.

While many of those flight disruptions were blamed on airlines’ supply-chain issues and pilot shortages, the meltdown also exposed cracks in the country’s aviation infrastructure and staffing deficiencies. Flash forward one year and many of those same problems still exist.

First, the United States has been woefully slow to update its aging aviation infrastructure. The issue was fully exposed in January when an outage of one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s critical systems led to a nationwide ground stop of all flights for several hours.

Since then, the FAA has been ramping up its ambitious, multi-year, multi-billion-dollar effort, known as NextGen, to modernize the system. Of the agency’s 2023 annual budget of $23.6 billion, $1 billion is earmarked for NextGen.

“Aviation infrastructure and technology have been chronically underfunded for years,” says Freeman. “These problems have been driven by a slate of missed opportunities over the years from Congress and within the federal government.”

Another salient challenge is the ongoing shortage of air traffic controllers. Travel Cassandras were quick to recognize a bad omen when the FAA asked airlines to pull back slots in New York and Washington, D.C. airports this summer, reducing the number of available flights.

Delays in two major markets can easily create a ripple effect nationwide, but the issue is of particular concern to airlines like JetBlue with strongholds in the Northeast. The New York-based carrier posted a loss for the first quarter of the year and its $3.8 billion acquisition of Spirit Airlines is being challenged by the Department of Justice. On JetBlue’s earnings call earlier this week, CEO Robin Hayes noted the “very challenging [air traffic control] backdrop” and said the FAA’s request for 10% voluntary reductions by carriers “creates a significant headwind for the American travelers flying this summer.”

Few people understand the challenges of air traffic control better than Paul Rinaldi, a former 16-year air traffic controller at Washington Dulles International Airport and 12-year president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

He believes the U.S. should pull the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), the agency’s operational air navigation arm, out of the FAA, which is also responsible for regulatory oversight. This separation is already in place in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and most other countries, and it is the longstanding recommendation of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Next, says Rinaldi, the U.S. should fund the ATO through a tax-funded program we already have called the Aviation Trust Fund, which was established in 1970. When a passenger buys an airline ticket, the price includes aviation-related excise taxes that go into the trust fund, he explains, “which could fund the ATO to the point that the FAA wouldn’t have to interrupt modernization projects while hiring and it would have some financial stability.”

The current shortage of air traffic controllers is hardly new—it can be traced back to the 2013 United States budget sequestration, says Rinaldi. “They closed the air traffic control academy,” he explains “They looked at reducing hours and many air traffic facilities. They looked at closing and cutting more than 100 federal contract towers, and stopped most modernization projects.”

“And when you look at our short staffing now,” Rinaldi continues, “we have never made it back up since sequestration. And now here we are 10 years later, almost to the date and we’re looking at the same type of draconian cuts.”

It’s not clear that Congress has learned anything from past mistakes. The proposed budget by House Republicans would cut the FAA’s operations by $1.4 billion. One-time budget cuts would reduce staffing not just for the coming year, but for the next decade.

“Every time there’s a threat of a government shutdown, the agency spends weeks preparing for it. And then Congress, at the eleventh hour, kicks the can,” Rinaldi says. “We keep going through the same exercise, and nobody’s really working on modernizing the system or getting a system that works. We’re just waiting on Congress, to see if they’re going to fund the system.”

How to Protect Yourself from Flight Disruptions

In a summer filled with massive flight disruptions, it will be everyday airline passengers who bear the pain. Here are some steps that can reduce your risk:

🛫 Choose the earliest possible flight of the day.

“Statistically your flight is less likely to get canceled the earlier in the day you fly,” Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and current spokesperson for FlightAware, told Forbes last year. “In the summer, stormy weather tends to be more problematic in afternoons and evenings. But any time of year, early flights have the least cancellations.”

What’s more, there is often a domino effect, where one canceled flight leads to a second and then a third. Late-day flights get canceled more often because planes never make it to their departure airport. One of Bangs’ favorite FlightAware tools can give travelers an early heads-up that a problem may be brewing. Enter your flight information, and then click the “Where is my plane now?” link just under the flight number. You’ll be able to see if the plane is ahead of schedule, on time or behind schedule and act accordingly.

Keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Storms and other weather events can compound the country’s already fragile air travel map. What’s important to understand—especially as America enters hurricane season on June 1—is that bad weather in a specific region can quickly turn into a national air travel problem because of how airlines reuse planes and crews for multiple trips during the day.

😎 Be flexible.

Cancellations on Friday can have an echo effect on Saturday, as the previous day’s passengers scramble to be re-accommodated. Before your departure day, think ahead to what you would do if your flight is canceled. Stay flexible with your dates, as it may be hard to catch another on the same day or even the next.

For large fixed events such as weddings or cruise departures, it can be wise to pad a getaway with an extra day to give yourself extra wiggle room.

📱 Use your phone.

Before flying, download the airline’s app and program the customer service number into your contacts. The moment a flight is canceled, there will be a stampede to the service counter. But you’ll likely be able to book yourself on a new flight much faster on a smartphone.

📖 Know your rights.

If your flight is canceled or delayed, consult the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection website, which shows side-by-side comparisons of what each airline offers in the event of a controllable delay or cancellation. For example, vouchers are provided if disruptions are caused by an issue such as understaffing or a mechanical glitch but not if flights are delayed or cancelled for reasons outside an airline’s control, such as weather.


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