August 12, 2022

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Opinion: Air travel chaos leaves us with one simple choice

And yet, as anyone who’s traveled — or attempted to — in recent months can attest, it’s not been an easy ride. Consumer interest in air travel has reached pre-pandemic levels for the first time in two years, and airlines and airports have scrambled to keep up.
A labor shortage and high incidences of workers calling in sick have created problems both in the air and on the ground. There are fewer pilots, flight attendants, service desk workers, security agents, technicians and other support staff than before 2020, but just as many travelers.
Inflation has also increased costs for both travelers and travel providers, while market shortages and supply chain issues have created far less slack for airlines when something goes wrong. All of this has resulted in record numbers of flight delays and cancelations for many carriers, and record levels of anxiety and frustration. To top it off, Covid-19 cases are on the rise in many parts of the world, with Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 appearing to escape antibody responses among people who are vaccinated and boosted and those who were previously infected.
On a recent weekday at Heathrow Airport, almost a third of scheduled flights were late; about 2% of all scheduled flights were canceled. (On the same day in 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal, about 23% of flights were late and 0.5% were canceled.) The airport has now asked airlines to stop selling more tickets this summer.
The problem is global: This week, German airline Lufthansa announced it would be canceling 2,000 flights this summer. Meanwhile, US airlines have dropped service in several smaller markets due to pilot shortages. Everyone knows someone, it seems, who was stuck in an airport, still waiting for their missing luggage or both.
All of which means that suddenly, what had felt like one of our only respites — the classic summer jaunt — feels as stressful as being stuck at home for yet another summer.
So, other than canceling summer and hunkering down once more, how are we to cope?
The key to getting through the challenge of summer travel — should you choose to accept it — will be about managing your expectations, knowing where you fall on the risk/reward spectrum (that is, understanding whether the benefits of travel for you outweigh the very real risks), learning what you can control for yourself and knowing if you can let go of the rest.
One very big thing you can control: Your decision to assume the risk that is the current state of air travel. One way to lower incident-related stress is to assume, in advance, that there will be an incident. Something is likely to go wrong. That’s OK; this year, at least, it will be par for the course.
When things go wrong, it will be easy to feel frustrated. You will want to get mad at the airlines, or the poor service at the hotel, or the badly behaved fellow passengers — that’s understandable. In those moments, remember: You made the decision to travel. You can also make a different one.
What you can’t control: Your flight being delayed or canceled. The poor attitude of the ill-equipped, likely over-worked, concierge at the hotel. The long lines at the airport. Those fellow passengers, or how (and if) flight attendants respond to them. These are things that are out of your hands.
Deciding to travel is accepting, in advance, these truths and resigning yourself to the fact that you can’t do anything about them — at least not in the moment. You can use these experiences to make different decisions later, but for now, this is your reality.
You also can’t control how airlines will respond to delays and cancelations, how they do or don’t seek to make accommodations and allowances for passengers, or whether the staff makes an effort to ensure the comfort off all passengers. But you certainly can control your decision to fly with that carrier again.
The best way to approach summer travel, then? Plan well. That can mean doing your research on the airlines with the most delayed or canceled flights, keeping customer service numbers at the ready, reconfirming your flights a few days in advance and knowing what you’d do if you end up stuck at your destination. Be prepared for delayed (or missing) luggage by packing a change of clothes and essentials in your carry-on. From there, know you’ve done your best.
View the trip as an experience that will go exactly how it goes. In summer travel, as in life, you can control your expectations, and your response, but not the outcome itself.
If you think you can take whatever comes in stride, knowing you set yourself up for success as best you could, you may be able to take on travel’s psychological and emotional risks.
If you don’t think you can handle an unforeseen event like a delay or cancelation, you may be better off staying closer to home. Opt for a drivable destination, or simply stay put with an intentional staycation, one where you block off relaxation time, unplug from digital technology and plan fun outings beyond your normal routine.
What’s one more year?