Worries rise over airlines’ ‘inadequacies’ as spring travel booms

In this week’s news, airlines are expecting record passenger numbers this spring and summer, with their total capacity exceeding 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic started; still, there is some apprehension about how well carriers will handle the crowds, given last year’s problems; airlines’ summer schedules start to kick in this weekend as United adds more seats from SFO to Australia, Japan and Israel, and Oakland gets new service to El Salvador; Delta and United add flights from LAX to London; Taiwan’s China Airlines revives Ontario, California, service; Norse Atlantic brings back an LAX route; United kicks off Dubai nonstops; there’s more international route news from Delta, JetBlue, American, Taiwan’s Starlux, South Korea’s Air Premia, and Air Tahiti Nui; low-cost Breeze Airways launches three new Orange County routes next week, and Avelo Airlines plans to add one from Hollywood Burbank in May; Hawaiian Airlines boosts summer frequencies on some routes; Delta revamps its service plans at Dallas Love Field; an eight-week runway closure at SFO starts next week; and premium passenger lounges open at Austin-Bergstrom, London Heathrow and New York JFK.    

Spring break travel is now in full swing, and airlines are expecting record passenger numbers. That will make March-April flight operations a good rehearsal for the upcoming summer peak season, as carriers finally put the three-year-long pandemic slump behind them. 

Airlines for America, the trade organization for U.S. carriers, said its members expect to handle 158 million travelers in March and April, or about 2.6 million each day. That’s more than they carried in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. To accommodate that demand, Airlines for America said, U.S. airlines are “hiring aggressively, reducing schedules, flying larger planes.” The reduced schedules are intended to prevent a repeat of last year’s problems when carriers often had to cancel flights at the last minute when they realized they didn’t have enough staff to handle them.   

General view of the gates area in Brussels Airport with passengers seen carrying their luggage inside the terminal and the gates area of Brussels Zaventem Airport.

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Airlines are also on track to blow past 2019 numbers in the total passenger capacity they plan to offer this summer. According to an analysis of OAG data by Routesonline.com, “the number of seats U.S. airlines plan to operate will be about 6% higher than during summer 2019. About 715.6 million seats are scheduled to operate this summer, compared with 673.9 million four years ago before the pandemic.” The biggest capacity bump among major carriers will be at Southwest Airlines, up 16.4% over summer 2019 levels, while low-cost Spirit Airlines is due to offer 42.8% more seats. American’s capacity will grow by 1.2% over summer 2019 and United’s by 3.3%, although Delta’s capacity will drop a fraction of a percent. The use of larger aircraft this summer means major airlines can offer more seats while they operate fewer flights overall, Routesonline noted: “Frequencies offered by American Airlines and Delta are slated to be around 11.5% down on summer 2019, while United is down by about 12.5%,” although flight frequencies are slated to increase at Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit and Allegiant.  

The expected summer air travel boom isn’t just domestic. A Reuters story this week was headlined, “Demand for transatlantic flights soars as Americans can’t get enough of Europe.” It cited a 22% capacity increase in transatlantic markets by United, Delta and American this year over 2022 — even though the average fare for such trips is up more than 30%.    

TSA security lines in the main terminal are crowded with spring break travelers on April 12, 2017, in Denver, Colo. 

TSA security lines in the main terminal are crowded with spring break travelers on April 12, 2017, in Denver, Colo. 

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Despite all that optimism, there are concerns that the airline industry might not be prepared for this year’s travel boom, given last year’s massive operational problems of canceled and delayed flights, lost luggage and long airport lines. Geoff Freeman, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said this week that the spring break crunch will be “a stress test” that could reveal “the inadequacies of our current air travel system. Demand may be high now, but countless frustrating air travel experiences may cause passengers to choose other modes of transportation or simply stay home in the future.” He cited an Ipsos survey that found 45% of U.S. travelers rate the air travel experience as average or below average, and that 36% of leisure travelers “would travel more in the next six months if the travel experience was not so much of a hassle today.” USTA is urging the federal government to do more to “address system inadequacies to meet rising demand.” For example, it noted that there are currently 1,200 fewer air traffic controllers than there were a decade ago.     

The big online travel booking site Hopper surveyed its customers and reported that 76% of them said they are somewhat or very worried about flight cancellations and missed connections. Hopper said one-fifth of its customers are opting for the company’s flight disruption guarantee, which rebooks them at no extra cost, and 29% are going for its “Change for any Reason” feature, by which Hopper picks up the extra cost if they make changes to their bookings.  

A United Airlines plane takeoff from SFO in San Francisco on March 17, 2023.

A United Airlines plane takeoff from SFO in San Francisco on March 17, 2023.

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In late March, international airlines start to switch over to their summer schedules, so a number of overseas routes are set to begin, resume or increase frequencies this weekend. 

At San Francisco International, United Airlines plans to boost its schedule to Melbourne from three flights a week to seven on March 26, using a 787-9, and will add capacity from SFO to both Tel Aviv and Tokyo Haneda on March 25 by switching aircraft from 787s to a larger 777-300ER (to Tel Aviv) and 777-200ER (to Haneda). At Oakland International, March 26 is the launch date for new service four days a week to San Salvador, El Salvador, operated by Volaris El Salvador, a subsidiary of the Mexican carrier Volaris. 

On March 25, capacity between Los Angeles International and London Heathrow is expected to get a big boost, as Delta starts daily flights in the market, which it hasn’t served for eight years. On the same date, United plans to introduce a second daily departure from LAX to Heathrow. LAX-LHR is also served by Delta partner Virgin Atlantic and by the American/British Airways partnership. On March 26, Taiwan-based China Airlines is set to resume daily nonstops between southern California’s Ontario Airport and Taipei, using a 358-seat 777-300ER; it had suspended the service three years ago. And Norse Atlantic plans a March 28 revival of service from LAX to Oslo with two weekly flights. 

Elsewhere, on March 25, United begins new nonstop, ultra-long-haul daily service from its Newark hub to Dubai with a 777-200ER, previously announced as part of its big partnership with Emirates; from Dubai, customers can connect on Emirates or its affiliated carrier Flydubai to more than 100 destinations. Delta has scheduled a revival of service from its Atlanta hub to Stuttgart, Germany, on March 26 with four weekly departures. And JetBlue on March 25 adds a second daily flight from New York JFK to London Heathrow, at the same time reducing its JFK-London Gatwick schedule from two daily flights to one. The new second JFK-LHR flight will be daytime service with a morning departure instead of the overnight flight typical of eastbound transatlantic routes. Also at JFK, Norse Atlantic is due to enter a new market March 26, launching daily 787 flights to Paris CDG.  At Dallas/Fort Worth International, American Airlines is set to resume nonstop flights to Shanghai Pudong on March 27, eliminating a stopover in Seoul for its four weekly flights. 

In upcoming international developments, a three-year-old Taiwanese airline called Starlux plans to begin its first route to the U.S. on April 26, when it launches five flights a week from Los Angeles International to Taipei. Unlike most start-ups, Starlux is not a low-cost carrier but a full-service airline; it will use an Airbus A350 on the LAX route with first class, business class, premium economy and regular economy seating. Air Premia, a South Korean airline that introduced Los Angeles-Seoul flights last fall, now plans to add East Coast service with four weekly 787 flights to Newark beginning May 22. Air Tahiti Nui, which previously announced the seasonal extension of its twice-weekly Papeete-Seattle route to Paris for the summer beginning June 13, now says it will keep operating that Papeete-Seattle-Paris routing year-round. (It also has five weekly Papeete-LAX-Paris flights.) 

A yellow field of blooming rapeseed viewed on June 19, 2018, near Kalispell, Montana, home to Glacier National Park.

A yellow field of blooming rapeseed viewed on June 19, 2018, near Kalispell, Montana, home to Glacier National Park.

George Rose/Getty Images

In domestic route news, low-cost Breeze Airways is due to expand at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana next week, introducing three weekly flights to Cincinnati and two a week to both Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio. Low-cost Avelo Airlines said it will add a new route starting May 22 from Hollywood Burbank Airport to Kalispell, Montana (the gateway to Glacier National Park), operating two 737 flights per week. Frontier Airlines this week announced an upcoming expansion at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, including daily seasonal service to San Diego and Ontario, California, starting May 11, and to Salt Lake City as of May 12.

Hawaiian Airlines, citing “strong summer demand,” said it will add more flights to Honolulu on some routes during the peak summer months, including up to 23 flights a week from Los Angeles, and up to 20 a week from Las Vegas. And Delta has revised its recently announced plans to add service at Dallas Love Field starring June 5; it now plans to operate three daily flights to Los Angeles International instead of two, add a sixth daily Dallas-Atlanta flight, and drop its proposed new route from DAL to New York LaGuardia (although it has plenty of service from Dallas/Fort Worth International to both LaGuardia and New York JFK).  

Just a reminder: San Francisco International on March 27 is due to close Runway 1 Left — its shortest runway — for an eight-week repaving job. “SFO expects this closure to cause few delays during clear conditions and delays of less than an hour during foggy conditions,” the airport said. “There will also be slightly longer taxi times for departing aircraft to reach the open runways.”   

Other airport news this week includes some lounge openings. At Austin Bergstrom, Chase has cut the ribbon on the Sapphire Terrace, for the exclusive use of its Chase Sapphire Reserve and J.P. Morgan Reserve cardholders. According to The Points Guy, the new facility’s 5,000 square feet will be mostly outdoors, taking over a former plane-watching area on the upper level of the passenger terminal near Gate 1 next to Delta’s Sky Club. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., with drinks and light food offerings. At London Heathrow, American Airlines has reopened its International First Class lounge on the departures level of Terminal 3 after passport control. And at New York JFK, Turkish Airlines has opened a business class lounge in Terminal 1 — its third in the U.S. after Miami and Washington Dulles — to serve passengers on its three daily JFK-Istanbul flights.

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