Air travel hit a new high over the holiday. And so did the hassles, travelers say
This summer is already shaping up to be a difficult one for air travelers.
Southwest Airlines customers have struggled with thousands of delays and hundreds of canceled flights in the past three weeks because of computer problems, staffing shortages and bad weather.
American Airlines is also grappling with a surge in delays, and it has trimmed its schedule through mid-July at least in part because it doesn’t have enough pilots, according to the pilots’ union.
At the same time, the number of Americans getting on planes is at a pandemic-era high. Just under 2.2 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports on Friday, the highest number since early March 2020. AAA predicted 3.5 million people would fly over the weekend.
Travelers are posting photos of long airport lines and describing painful flights.
“It was ridiculously crowded,” Tracey Milligan said of airports after a round trip from her New Jersey home to Miami last week.
Milligan and her 6-year-old daughter endured hours-long delays on both legs of the trip. Before the flight to Florida, she said, JetBlue agents first told passengers there was a discrepancy with the plane’s weight, then they were missing three crew members because the airline was short-staffed, then there was a weather delay.
“I really wanted to start screaming and cursing everybody out, but that doesn’t get you anywhere, and security will come and remove you from the plane,” she said.
At least the passengers on Milligan’s flights kept their cool. Airlines have seen a surge in unruly passengers, and some experts predict it will get worse this summer as planes become even more crowded.
There have been more than a dozen days in June and July when more than 2 million travelers went through U.S. airports, according to figures from the Transportation Security Administration. Airlines say that domestic leisure travel is back to 2019 levels, although the lack of business travelers means that overall, the number of passengers over the past week is still down slightly compared with the same days in 2019.
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Even if you’re vaccinated, you’ll still need to wear a mask in airports and on planes, TSA said. All passengers over the age of 2 are required to wear a face mask during the security screening process.
The only time you can take your mask off is if an officer requests that you temporarily lower the mask to confirm your identify.
If you don’t wear a mask, you could get fined, according to the TSA. Officials will recommend a fine of $250 for a first offense and up to $1,500 for repeat offenders.
“Passengers without a mask may be denied entry, boarding, or continued transport,” TSA said in a Jan. 31 news release. “Failure to comply with the mask requirement can result in civil penalties.”
If you start packing your bags when they are completely emptied from your last trip, you have less of a chance of bringing something through security that you didn’t mean to have.
If there’s an item that TSA has to inspect inside your bag, it’s going to keep you waiting longer.
TSA officials keep finding prohibited items in passengers’ luggage. At the Dallas Love Field and Dallas Fort Worth International airports, TSA officials have seen an increase in the number of items that aren’t allowed.
Officers found more than 100 stun guns at both airports combined from January to April of this year. TSA officials have also found firearms and flammables in luggage at airports across the country.
If you’re wondering what you can and can’t bring in a carry-on or checked bag, you can check TSA’s “What Can I Bring?” site before packing.
Before you get into the TSA checkpoint line, think about how you could avoid touching additional items.
TSA said that putting any jewelry, keys or other items in your carry-on bag could help save you from dumping items into a bin at the conveyor belt. You should also know which items will need removal and what can stay in a bag.
Having an ID card ready and following the rules for transporting liquids also help make the process more speedy.
You can take up to 3.4 ounces of liquids on board a plane unless it’s hand sanitizer. You’re allowed up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer in a carry-on bag.
John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
People who are prepared and get their questions answered before they get to the airport will have an easier time making their way through security.
“Those who are preparing to travel and may have special circumstances, considerations or general questions about airport screening can get live assistance by tweeting questions and comments to @AskTSA or via Facebook Messenger,” TSA said. You can also call the TSA Contact Center at 866-289-9673.
If you don’t want the hassle of going through a typical TSA checkpoint at all, you could always enroll in TSA PreCheck.
In April 2021, most passengers with PreCheck waited only five minutes.
With PreCheck, you don’t have to take off your shoes or belts, and you don’t need to remove liquids, food or laptops from your bag. You can apply online for PreCheck and enroll in person.
“Most new enrollees receive their known traveler number within five days, and membership lasts for five years,” TSA said.
To no one’s surprise, load factors — that is, how full planes are — dropped to 59% in the first 11 months of 2020, down from about 85% in 2019, Bureau of Transportation Statistics say. That means in a 143-seat 737, you would have had about 123 seats filled in 2019 and about 84 in 2020.
“Great!” you say. “Social distancing. Empty middle seats. I get to stretch my legs.”
Dream on. Most airlines no longer keep the middle seat empty. (Delta will retain that space only through the end of April.) COVID-19 and all it implies means airlines are burning cash. To slow the burn, they have cut routes and capacity to increase load factors. The equation is simple: more people, more dough.
Pent-up demand and the possibility of herd immunity by summer means more of us hope to hit the road, according to a Longwoods International survey released Feb. 9.
This survey of traveler sentiment, its 30th in the COVID-19 era, showed that 81% of respondents plan to travel in the next six months, up from 65% in mid-January.
The car trip is still king, said Amir Eylon, president and chief executive of Longwoods.
“Airline travel will rebound at a pace that will depend on the pace of vaccination, which means that it will rebound at a slower pace than auto travel,” he said in an email.
“One would expect airline travel to increase significantly in the third and fourth quarters, barring any unforeseen new challenges to travel.” That might suggest …
If you are thinking summer or fall for travel, consider booking by the end of March for better fares, said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, which chases flight deals.
Unlike pre-COVID-19 days when the fee to change a fare often wiped out the value of your ticket, today’s kinder, gentler airlines have dropped the punitive fee on most flights.
By booking now, Keyes said, you lock in the fare and don’t have to worry about taking the financial hit.
Here’s what you do have to worry about, he said: If the cost of your rebooked flight is more than what you originally paid, you must make up the difference.
If the price has dropped? Well, that depends on the airline. United, for instance, will make you pay the difference if your new fare costs more, but if it costs less, you don’t get a refund. Heads, United wins. Tails, United wins.
It’s critical, then, to check the airline’s policies on rebooking. Yes, we know fine print is not fun print, but it’s critical to avoid unpleasant surprises.
What if you decide to brave it and leave the country? Here’s a new twist that may surprise air travelers.
This isn’t the old saw about not being covered by Medicare when you travel abroad. (Generally you are not.) Before COVID-19, a handful of countries required travelers to have insurance that covered them at the destination, no matter their age or whether they had insurance at home. Now the list of such destinations is growing.
Now, some countries are requesting proof that you’re covered before they let you in.
Costa Rica, for instance, which is admitting U.S. visitors, now requires proof of insurance uploaded to its Health Pass, which is not available until 48 hours before your flight. You must have a Health Pass for each member of your party. If your health insurance doesn’t meet the requirements, Costa Rica will be in touch.
Finding out that your insurance doesn’t measure up isn’t something you want to learn about a couple of days before departure, mainly because Costa Rica has an additional requirement: Your insurance must cover lodging expenses if you are quarantined for COVID-19, said Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer for Squaremouth, which allows you to compare travel insurance policies.
“Eighteen of the travel insurance providers on our website cover medical expenses for contracting COVID-19,” Moncrief said. “Fourteen of them also include cancellation coverage for contracting the virus. Most travel insurance policies come standard with the amount of medical coverage we have seen become required per destination.”
But, she said, “The outlier is the additional amount of ‘lodging’ expenses required by Costa Rica. At present, only one policy on our website meets this benefit level.”
Squaremouth keeps a list of country requirements that you’ll want to consult if you’re traveling internationally.
Be sure to check because the best insurance surprise is no surprise.
And here’s something you do not want to be surprised by either:
Airlines began dribbling out requirements for wearing masks on flights as last summer began. Each carrier set the rules, so they differed.
Not anymore. President Joe Biden signed an executive order last month that mandates masks on planes (as well as trains, buses, ships and public transportation). You’ll need to mask up in airports (along with train stations, bus, ship and ferry terminals).
Passengers who don’t comply will face greater penalties than landing on the carrier’s no-fly list. The Transportation Security Administration announced fines for mask miscreants starting at $250 — and topping out at $1,500. And — surprise! — if you’re a super jerk (“aggravating” or “mitigating” factors in government speak), “TSA may seek a sanction amount that falls outside these ranges,” it said in a news release.
The carriers will report the violators to the TSA.
These new mandates are in effect until May 11, but don’t be surprised if they’re extended, which would be good news for summer fliers who will be able to breathe a little easier, figuratively speaking.
For an over-the-top return to travel experience, consider a stay at The Point, an intimate lakefront private Adirondack estate that was originally built as a Great Camp for William Avery Rockefeller II. Imagine a luxurious twist on an old-school summer camp experience with activities that might include boating, fishing, tennis, water skiing, croquet, badminton, swimming, wake-surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking or a round of golf at the Saranac Inn golf course. A Relais & Châteaux member, The Point is the only Adirondack Great Camp from the Gilded Age that is open to the public. Currently, children 18 and older are welcome. However, buyouts of the 11-room property are possible so that multi-generational gatherings with young children may be enjoyed.
With more than 3,000 miles of trout streams and 1,100 miles of hatchery-supported trout waters in the mountains alone, North Carolina is a fly-fishing and outdoor lover’s haven. It’s home to the nation’s only designated fly-fishing trail, (Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail) that leads anglers to 15 prime spots in the Great Smoky Mountains to cast a line. Expect a variety of options from wide-open rivers to small, secluded streams. The heart of the trail, the Tuckasegee River, or the “Tuck” as it’s known to locals, is the county’s largest body of water. Designed by two outdoorsmen and fly-fishing guides, the trail is an ideal way for fly-fishers of all skill levels and ages to learn the art of fly-fishing.
Contact: www.Flyfishingtrail.com; https://www.discoverjacksonnc.com/outdoors/
Join Western River Expeditions for an outdoor adventure that blends the best of whitewater rafting with extraordinary hikes, many of which are only accessible via a river. Consider a Cataract Canyon run through the heart of Canyonlands National Park for stunning scenery and whitewater thrills. At river mile 31, you’ll be treated to a hike that offers a spectacular seasonal waterfall, towering 2,000-foot canyon walls and Native American ruins. After an easy streamside walk, guests encounter The Falls — a thundering 20-foot cascade that’s most spectacular in the spring when runoff and seasonal rains create an impressive stream flow. Ancestral Puebloan rock art and well-preserved granaries along the way speak to past lives. Modern adventurers can soak under the falls, dip in the natural pool or slide down the smooth rocks into the water.
Located at the northern end of Monterey Bay, on 19 acres of Pacific shoreline, The Sanctuary Beach Resort, part of the Independent Collection, offers a comfortable basecamp to explore the scenic area or simply relax and enjoy all that the coastal location offers. Rest up in cottage-style accommodations and then set out to take in the vistas from the Monterey Recreation Trail, where you can bike or skate along the shoreline. Consider spending the day exploring Big Sur, California’s famous, rugged coastline. This 90-mile stretch is home to otherworldly landscapes shaped by canyons, cliffs, turquoise ocean, waterfalls, and spectacular beaches. Hike, cycle the winding roads or savor the views and taste treats at a local lunch spot.
Contact: https://www.independentcollection.com; www.VisitCalifornia.com
You’ll find Michigan’s iconic island in Lake Huron, between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. You won’t find chain hotels or even cars. So hop on a bike or in a horse drawn carriage to explore the picturesque island along with locals and other visitors. In just under 4 square miles, you’ll find a spacious lake front, outdoor dining, casual picnic spots, putt-putt golf, interesting shops and farm-to-ferry culinary offerings. Consider a stay at The Grand Hotel for its historic grandeur or check in to the iconic Mission Point Resort and enjoy the sprawling Great Lawn dotted with colorful Adirondack chairs.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave the island without sampling the world-famous Mackinac Island fudge.