By Janice Hisle, of Epoch Times
Summertime is supposed to be joyful for travelers heading to vacation destinations—and airlines, too, because that’s when they typically rake in cash by the barrel.
But 2022 has ushered in a summer of discontent for passengers and airlines worldwide, as airlines’ plans for rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic travel slump have hit one logjam after another.
Across the globe, especially in Europe, there’s a new epidemic: canceled, overbooked, and delayed flights—and airport storage areas overflowing with lost and misdirected baggage. These once-rare annoyances of air travel are now more commonplace; travelers who took smooth operations for granted now expect snafus—a new mindset that has changed the way they plan trips.
To prevent issues, savvy travelers are increasingly entrusting delivery services like FedEx or UPS to transport luggage to their destinations. Some are putting GPS-enabled devices into their luggage, such as Apple’s AirTag or the Tile tracker. And people traveling in groups are sprinkling a few pieces of clothing per person into each checked bag instead of risking having someone lose an entire vacation wardrobe.
For now, if an air traveler manages to have a leisurely getaway and hassle-free experience, they might feel like they’ve won the lottery. Chances for bad experiences have increased, a trend likely to continue as the summer progresses, says Jay Ratliff, an aviation expert with more than three decades of experience.
“Travel used to be something we enjoyed. But it’s turned into something we endure,” he said. One day last week, Ratliff’s email was brimming with more than 800 new messages, many of them from fed-up airline customers turning to him for help—or to vent.
“I’ve never seen it this bad, industry-wide,” said Ratliff.
“There are a lot of things contributing to this mess that we’re in, but it comes down to the airlines trying to operate too many flights, and they simply didn’t have enough employees to pull it off,” Ratliff said, noting the situation is “10 times worse in Europe.”
Ratliff said that the percentage of flight delays serves as a barometer for how bad the problems are. During average years, he would see single-digit percentages of delayed flights for many airlines across the globe. But one day last week, 54 percent of British Airways flights were behind schedule, for example. He rattles off other recent jaw-dropping statistics at major hubs: In Brussels, Belgium, up to 72 percent of flights were late, and in Frankfurt, Germany, 68 percent of flights were delayed.
In many cases, flight delays cause missed connections. When those passengers seek rebooking, the airlines often cannot find seats for them because flights are filled. That can leave passengers stranded at unintended destinations for hours, or even days.
Ratliff said that several airports have been “begging airlines to stop selling tickets because terminals are filling up” with travelers waiting for rebooked flights.
Adding to the mess: rental cars are scarce, another COVID-created problem. When pandemic was raging, few people were renting cars. That prompted rental companies to sell portions of their fleets. They also halted plans to buy replacements. Now that travelers are back, rental agencies are having problems securing new vehicles, which are selling at inflated prices. So when people try to get a rental car at the last minute, either because they failed to plan or were stranded by flight disruptions, they often rely on Uber or Lyft, or they may roam the airport for a prolonged period.
This week, Europe’s woes worsened. German-based Lufthansa airlines announced it was canceling “almost all flights to and from Frankfurt and Munich.” The cancellations took effect July 27 because a union representing ground workers was waging a single-day walkout to demand higher pay. In a statement, the airline said the impact was “massive;” cancellations affected more than 130,000 passengers.
Ratliff, who worked in management for Northwest Airlines from 1981-2001, explained how the COVID-19 pandemic set the stage for the current crisis. Airlines were forced to cut their workforces through layoffs and early retirements. Those measures were necessary to stay afloat when demand for air travel slowed to a trickle during the pandemic’s worst surges in 2020-21. “What business can survive with 95 percent of their customers no longer knocking on the door?” he asked.
Airline executives reasoned that travel demand would eventually come roaring back—and when it did, they’d hire replacements for the former employees. But it wasn’t that simple. “They found they weren’t able to hire as fast as they thought they could,” Ratliff said. Background screenings and training for new workers can be time-consuming, too.
As a result, many airlines and airports remain understaffed in many job categories, ranging from pilots to baggage handlers to ticketing agents and customer service reps.
Anticipating a staffing shortfall, airlines cut back flights during summer, when they would typically add flights. Those cutbacks surely made airline executives wince, Ratliff said. “They want as many of those ‘silver revenue tubes’ flying as they can during the summer,” he said, “because that’s the time when they make their money.”
However, Ratliff said that even the curtailed flight schedules “assumed a perfect scenario” from May-June this year. During the Memorial Day weekend travel rush, it became clear that those ideal projections were unrealistic; systems disintegrated if bad weather rolled in or if a handful of employees called in sick, sometimes suffering from COVID-19. Such unpredictable events are capable of touching off a domino effect of airport problems. That was true even in the pre-pandemic era. But this summer, the airport house-of-cards is so precarious, a major thunderstorm could cause “a coast-to-coast cascading problem” that might persist for weeks, Ratliff said.
Still, U.S. airlines are faring better than European ones. Airlines in Europe are having more trouble adjusting because demand for travel in those nations continued to lag while U.S. travel demand gradually picked up. During that ramp-up period, especially in the past year or so, U.S.-based airlines “learned some things,” Ratliff said; executives could see that they would need to curtail flights because they lacked the personnel to keep pace.
Meanwhile, Europe faced a 77-percent drop in international traffic—or more—“and then, all of a sudden, here they come,” travelers flocking to Europe to fulfill long-delayed travel itineraries, Ratliff said.
Europe’s air-travel landscape is “a crazy, crazy mess,” Ratliff said, blaming it on flight schedules that were even more “aggressive” than many American air carriers’ schedules.
“This is a self-inflicted airline problem,” Ratliff said. “They rolled out this summer schedule thinking they could operate more flights than they were able to do.
They miscalculated. And who’s paying for it? The poor passengers.”
Travelers who expected to follow a nice, curved arc from their point of origin to their destination instead ended up bouncing along a zigzag path. In the worst single travel nightmare that Ratliff had heard of, a family started its journey with seven boarding passes—and ended up with 96 of them.
A synopsis of that family’s odyssey: After leaving Washington’s Dulles Airport, the group ended up missing flights, then being rebooked in multiple international hubs. “And, of course, their bags—did they keep up?” Ratliff asked. “Ha, not a chance!”
Additional problems with flights and baggage seem to grab headlines every few days. Last week, a baggage-system malfunction at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol caused KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) in the Netherlands to take an unusual step. On July 20, the airline could not process luggage for most of the day, the airline said in a statement. As a result, “thousands of suitcases” were left behind while their owners traveled to other places. The next day, July 21, KLM refused to accept checked bags for passengers traveling between European cities. The goal was to “free up as much space as possible” on that day’s flights so that left-behind baggage could be transported.
In the U.S., there is a shortage of baggage handlers partly because of uncompetitive wages, Ratliff said. In some places, those jobs pay about $16 an hour, he said, “and you could go work at McDonald’s in that same airport for $20 an hour—so why would you want to go out and work in all kinds of weather when you can be inside and make more money?”
Many travelers are putting tracking devices on their luggage—but that doesn’t always help. Even if the tracker reveals the bag’s location, some passengers are reporting that airlines are telling them to travel to distant cities to retrieve their bags.
Existing methods for reuniting lost bags with their rightful owners are being stretched to their limits by the current crisis—which affected Joanne Prater and her family in ways they never anticipated. Prater, who is Scottish and lives in the United States, says her 50-day quest to recover a checked bag has made her painfully aware of the inconvenience, stress, and emotional impact that people can experience over checked items that go missing.
Longing to visit her family in Scotland, Prater scored a deal for half-price airfare: $500 per person, including checked bags. She, her husband, and their three sons drove from their Cincinnati-area home to Chicago. On June 6, they boarded an Aer Lingus flight and were bound for Dublin, Ireland, and Glasgow, Scotland. But when the family arrived at their destination, one bag belonging to her two youngest sons, ages 12 and 8, was missing.
As a result, the boys had only “the clothes on their backs,” Prater said. Worse yet, the bag contained a varsity jacket that holds special meaning for the family, along with team jerseys that the boys wanted to show off to their relatives. “How do you explain to your children that their favorite clothes are missing?” Prater said. After it became clear that the boys’ bag wouldn’t materialize anytime soon, the family purchased several outfits for them, paying the U.S. equivalent of about $500.
Prater repeatedly called the airline, sometimes stuck on hold for 45 minutes, only to have the call disconnected or to be in touch with a representative with whom she had communication difficulties. She finally resorted to returning to the Glasgow airport during her vacation, hoping that in-person contact would prove more fruitful than phone calls or electronic messages.
At the airport, an Aer Lingus employee did seem sympathetic to her concerns. To Prater’s surprise, the employee escorted her into a corridor that was outside public view. There, a sight took Prater’s breath away: the hallway was lined with hundreds of pieces of luggage and other lost articles, such as strollers, car seats, and golf clubs.
“People save all their lives for a dream vacation to come to my country, Scotland, where golf was invented, only to have their golf clubs lost? I mean, men collect clubs, and they’re expensive; you’re not bringing Fisher-Price clubs to Scotland to play golf,” Prater said. “It was just gut-wrenching to me. I’m standing there thinking about all of these poor families without their strollers, without their car seats, without their clothing.”
Despite repeated attempts to find the missing suitcase, the Praters returned home to the United States without it. Prater continued her attempts to file various complaints with the airline, to no avail.
Prater said she feels a kinship with other people who have formed groups on social media to vent their frustrations and to try to help each other locate their lost belongings. As of July 26, there was still no sign of the Praters’ bag, which was last seen in Dublin in early June, Prater said she was told.
When The Epoch Times asked Aer Lingus for comment on Prater’s situation, the airline responded via email: “We understand the concern and frustrations felt by our customers whose baggage has been delayed and the impact this has had on their travel plans. Regrettably, our airline is being impacted by widespread disruption and resource challenges.” The airline also said it is taking steps to resolve the issues, including enlisting help from third-party companies to return items to their owners.
Prater said she isn’t holding out much hope that the lost bag can be found, yet she still isn’t giving up because, “at this point, it’s about accountability.” It angers her that airlines seem to have offered flights and baggage services that they were ill-equipped to provide. “I’m probably never going to check a bag again because of this experience,” she said.
Ratliff, the aviation expert, said he doesn’t see the airline crisis abating quickly. He predicts issues could persist into mid-2023. In his view, “If the airlines have packed airplanes now, treating passengers the way they’re treating them, there’s not really an incentive for them to change how they’re doing things.”
Troubleshooting Tips for Travelers
Jay Ratliff, an aviation expert, provides these tips for avoiding airline-related hassles:
- Make your reservations as far in advance as possible, which also protects you from fare increases.
- Catch the first flight in the morning. “There is no more important flight of the day for an airline than that first flight of the day,” he said because airlines know that if that flight goes out on time, it’s more likely that the rest of that day’s flights will follow suit. “And,” Ratliff said, “it’s going to be the cleanest airplane because no one has been flying in it yet.”
- Put a copy of your itinerary into your bag before you close it, increasing the chances that an airline employee will be able to return your bag to you if it is lost.
- Consider purchasing a tracking device such as Apple’s AirTag or a Tile.
- Take a photograph of your bag as you’re checking in to aid in locating it.
- Make sure you never put essential items such as medication or car keys into a checked bag.
- Allow extra time at the airport, reducing the chance you’ll miss your flight and face a nightmare rebooking it. “Let’s not play the game of ‘let’s see how close we can cut it,’” he said.
- If you have an important event such as a cruise ship departure or a wedding to attend at your destination, build a “buffer” into your travel plans.
- If your flight is delayed or canceled, use social media to contact airlines because they likely have more people working on social media than they do working the phones, Ratliff said. Be succinct in sharing what’s going on and what you need.
- If all else fails and you have a horrible experience with your flight or luggage, fill out an airline complaint form with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). “That completely changes the tone of the conversation,” Ratliff said. “The airlines can ignore us (individual passengers), but they can’t ignore the DOT.”