This is part of Airplane Mode, a series on the business—and pleasure—of travel right now.
I’m a travel agent, and when I sat down to write this article, there were 1,154 flight cancellations. It wasn’t even 8 a.m.
Days like this used to be a once-a-year occurrence. A snowpocalypse would smother the entire East Coast or an airline’s computer system would go down or a strike would happen. A week of misery would follow while the whole industry dug out. Then we’d be back to normal.
But throughout 2023, it has seemed like overlapping travel miseries are the new normal. Snow gives way to ice, which gives way to hail, which gives way to heat so blistering that planes can’t take off. That’s what it feels like. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough flight crews, maintenance crews, or traffic controller crews to keep planes in the air. Airlines are losing luggage, losing seat assignments, losing upgrades. It is unclear what is happening on this specific day: Things first seemed to go south at Newark airport despite the clear, warm weather conditions there, and the delays were quickly dominoing to other airports. It’s odd—but also typical.
It’s no longer unusual to have a client call me in a panic saying that their flight has been canceled, and the airline has rebooked them for a flight … three days later. They’re rebooked three days later because so many other flights were also canceled that every flight for the next three days is already completely packed full. The week leading up to the Fourth of July, I spent nearly 17 hours over five days on hold with various airlines so that I could get stranded passenger after stranded passenger home. My company has an after-hours service handling the emergencies for our clients that inevitably crop up on nights and weekends. But lately, I’ve started each day with irate calls from clients who have spent hours on hold in the middle of the night with our service—unable to get through, unable to get help.
You’re not imagining it—and it wasn’t just your trip to see your family or your Europe vacation that was turned into a multiday airport nightmare by dint of bad luck. The air-travel industry is simply overwhelmed right now. It’s just harder to go places.
I spend most of my time as a travel agent working with business travelers. The goal is to get them where they need to be, at the time they need to be there, for as little money as possible. Our agency saves our clients millions of dollars each year by keeping their travelers on policy and in budget, helping them avoid fees and maximize perks. But for the first time in the dozen years I’ve been doing this, budget concerns are taking a back seat to fear. Clients who used to have no problem saving money by booking flights with layovers are now only booking nonstops. At least with nonstops their chances of being stranded in a strange city are cut by 75 percent. No one wants to be on the last flight out anymore because they want to know that if their flight is canceled, at least they might have a later one to hop on instead. People are adding whole days to their trips “just in case,” because their meeting is too important to miss because of a maintenance issue or a cabin crew timeout.
I’m snatching time to write this piece while I’m on hold, and I’m on hold a lot. I just checked again—cancellations are now up to 1,284 for the day. Delta’s revalidation system (which books travelers on new flights during cancellations or delays without issuing a completely new ticket) is down according to the travel agent support desk I’m in frequent touch with, and I’m watching the phone lines light up. I have spent the last three hours helping clients get unstranded because everyone in Boston, New York, and Newark has had their flight canceled out from under them by United.
The New Air Travel Normal has the same vibes as inflation at the grocery store. We are all just forced to accept that everything costs more, satisfies less, and we normal folks are powerless to reverse the slide into expensive misery. A travel agent can mitigate the misery by leveraging all their tools, expertise, relationships, and tricks to keep their travelers as comfortable as possible, but in the end, we can’t make the weather less extreme, the crews less exhausted, or the planes more mechanically sound.
We’re up to 1,501 cancellations, and I’m on hold with Air Canada to try to figure out how to get two very nice ladies back to the States today, since the airline canceled their flights and they have no hotel, no car, and no child care back at home after 9 p.m. tonight.
Things have been so bad all the way through 2023 with the airlines that sometimes I just sit and daydream about what life would be like if we had a high-speed rail system like China or Europe. If we weren’t at the mercy of airlines more interested in stock buybacks than they are in training pilots or paying flight attendants. If instead of the ever-increasing weather-related flight delays caused by global warming, we might be cozily ensconced in a viewing car, watching the storm roll by. It feels like everyone from industry insiders to casual vacationers is craving a more humane travel ecosystem that makes us feel less trapped and more free. But we’re caught in the gears of a machine determined to squeeze as much short-term profit as possible out of us, no matter the cost in health, comfort, time, or money.
It’s only 10:30 a.m. and we’re at 1,682 cancellations. But I got my ladies on a 6 p.m. flight, and they should get home to their kids tonight. I’m glad they had someone like me at their back today. I would recommend to anyone traveling in our New Normal to build as much margin into your plans as possible. Schedule that extra day of PTO and that extra hour of child care. If you can, work with an experienced travel agent instead of booking online, just so that you have someone in your corner when things go sideways. If you can’t, then at least book directly through the airline instead of a third-party website, where delays can leave you at the mercy of two customer service phone lines. Pack your meds and a change of clothes in your carry-on. Travel with the expectation of irritation for the foreseeable future.
As for me and my fellow agents? Our jobs have never been more secure or less secure than they are now. We’re needed more than ever—and the industry has never been more in flux. Every week brings a new crisis to navigate and new rules to learn. The day is winding down, and there have been 2,269 cancellations and 33,966 delays. But all my travelers are home safe, and I feel good about the day’s work.