Summer Travel Mayhem: How to Manage the Rush

Remember the days of early COVID when we all couldn’t wait to get back to normal? It turns out the old normal is gone, and we’ll all have to embrace the new normal. And that means right now, people hoping to resume their travels after the pandemic must endure canceled flights, long lines, and the ongoing risk of Coronavirus infection. Like so many other industries, travel businesses are struggling to cope with the conditions as the floodgates open once more on people flying more-or-less unhindered by travel restrictions, but the rush of summer holidays is creating hindrances of its own. Airports all over Europe have lines out the door in summer weather as people struggle to make their flights. Media coverage of the wild scenes at airports has been abundant. Airlines are being accused of overselling flights to make up for profits lost during COVID, and the resulting chaos is so bad, one airline Chief Executive Officer said the UK should “bring in the army” to control crowds. And it’s not much better in the United States. To make matters worse, travelers will sometimes wait in line for hours only to find out their flights have been canceled. This isn't exclusive to one airline. Everyone from the biggest airline to the smallest is buckling under the weight of the post-pandemic restriction surge. Even if some airlines have promised to pay flyers back their out-of-pocket expenses for wasted trips to the airport, this is an unsustainable business model and a problem requiring solutions that armed soldiers and reimbursement checks can’t provide. How did we get here? I know people are sick of hearing about COVID-19, but like a lot of today’s woes, these travel roadblocks all go back to the pandemic shutdown. To cut costs at a time when almost nobody was flying, airlines laid off employees and urged many pilots into early retirement. Now, dramatically understaffed, airlines are forced to cancel flights and airports do not employ enough security personnel to make check-ins run smoothly. There is a shortage of airport staff, and travel industry spokespeople have claimed that companies were not ready for how fast travel would ramp back up. Because of this, they were unable to bring rehiring efforts up to full speed before the rush. Beyond hiring woes, today’s high gas prices make each flight extra costly. Airlines sell tickets for flights they hope will be staffed and fueled, but will cut costs if necessary. After all, every canceled flight saves them on overpriced jet fuel. No end in sight Unfortunately, experts are predicting matters will get worse before they get better. Gas prices show no sign of dropping and the airlines are still well behind on hiring. Lack of pilots especially is a huge problem — some can be coaxed out of retirement, but a pilot is the one individual a plane simply can’t take off without. Training new pilots is an expensive and time-intensive endeavor, and a large crop of less experienced commercial pilots means flights won’t be as comfortable and safe until they gain practice at the controls. Thousands of passengers have experienced canceled summer flights this season, and that number will continue to climb. What can be done? So how do we deal with this problem? It looks like this summer travel season may be a rough one for airline passengers, with airport chaos the norm, but in the future a few ideas can fix these issues and hopefully prevent them from happening again. First and foremost, airlines and airports have to staff up again as quickly as possible. One hurdle to bringing back released employees is that many will not return to previous low wages and benefits. Likewise, new workers won’t take up the vacant positions unless properly compensated. It may be necessary for airlines to take a loss on labor to get back up to full efficiency. Better paid workers are also more productive, so raising wages is an investment in improving air travel across the board. While people have been desperate to travel during the pandemic years, the boom may well turn into another bust if flying remains such a hassle. Cutting the line Individuals and families looking to avoid the lengthy queues and hassles of today’s airport process can always invest in line-cutting services. These programs, provided either by airlines through special promotions or third-party contractors at airports, allow customers to pre-screen for security and go through special gates without a long wait for a screening process on the day of travel. Line-cutting or line-skipping (also called pre-check) programs are safe, convenient, and great idea for anyone who can afford them. But there’s the rub: they can be expensive, and so only travelers willing to pay a premium can enjoy this privilege while most others wait their turn and deal with huge delays. Digitizing the queue Ultimately, the huge queues endemic to the aviation industry are an issue best fixed by the airports. Airlines can hire more staff and pilots and travelers can pay for convenience, but only airports themselves can manage the rate at which they get people through security and to their gates. And the best way to deal with long lines is to not have lines at all. As always, the ideal queue is a virtual queue. Of course people must still be seen in the order they sign in, but given modern technology, there’s no reason they need to be present at the airport while they wait their turn. With remote check-in, travelers can join a virtual queue and be told when to arrive at the airport to be seen by security within a few minutes. As time goes on, digital queuing software can even calculate the trip to the airport and order rides for users automatically, and offer any number of conveniences to streamline the travel process. The presence of physical lines is an airport issue that makes operations run slower as spaces become crowded and difficult to navigate. They also cause stress for travelers and security personnel alike, leading to arguments, accidents, and mistakes that cause further issues. Digital queuing technology, meanwhile, can account for events like people arriving slightly late or needing extended security checks to time arrivals like clockwork. They can even reshuffle queues in emergencies to help people make flights on time. As an added bonus, people who are not crammed into slow-moving lines are less likely to give each other COVID. Industry leaders that manage to implement this will find that the hours-long delays in lines are drastically reduced and the customer experience improved tremendously. A good idea, even in bad times and good Until airlines have the workers they need to operate at peak efficiency, and fuel prices do not make canceling flights so tempting, long waits to fly (or sometimes not fly) are inevitable. For now, it makes more sense to relax at home and wait online then arrive exactly on time, than to add to the general misery of a line around the airport terminal. After the current issues are resolved, digital queuing can continue to make any trip to the airport more relaxed and efficient for everyone involved, from Heathrow Airport to JFK.