Summer travel: Chaos ahead with mask confusion, pilot shortage and more

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(CNN) — Temperatures are rising, Covid cases are falling, restrictions are easing in the blink of an eye, and summer vacation is so close you can smell sunscreen. But getting away this year won’t be easy or relaxing.

Experts warn that the chaos travelers endured during spring break is a harbinger of worse to come.

Anyone thinking of air travel in the coming months is facing potential delays or cancellations as airlines struggle to rebuild capacity and a workforce that has been drastically reduced during the pandemic.
The Justice Department said Tuesday it will appeal a court ruling that struck down the federal government’s mask mandate for travelers, but only if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines that the mandate is still necessary to protect public health.

And all, and we’re heading into a season of stress levels that would exhaust even the most seasoned traveler. It will take more than the prospect of a fully reclining business class seat to keep aviation anxiety at bay.

While many of the problems are around the world, it is in the United States that they are being felt most acutely right now. With China still subject to regular lockdowns, the United States is likely to reclaim its crown as the busiest country by air traffic passenger numbers.

And it has just experienced its busiest weekend since the arrival of Covid, with 6.5 million travelers going through airport security checks from Friday to Sunday. However, not everyone boarded their scheduled flight.

Nearly 1,000 flights to or from the United States were canceled over the weekend, adding to the legions unable to get off the ground in previous weeks.

Security and reduced hours

JetBlue planes are at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia on January 18, 2022. JetBlue recently announced that it will be pulling out of its daylight saving schedule.

Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

There’s more to come, with major US airlines saying they don’t have enough pilots to fly their schedules.

JetBlue and Alaska Airlines have already reduced their summer schedules. Others may need to do the same or play fast and loose with what they offer their customers.

Worse yet, there could be effects on air safety.

A pilots union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, recently wrote a letter to executives highlighting the rise in pilot burnout and warning that levels of acute and cumulative fatigue were now the number one safety risk for pilots. the flights. Southwest Airlines has acknowledged an increase in fatigue complaints.

At the root of this problem is the measures airlines took to stay afloat during the early days of the pandemic, when fleets of airliners were grounded and the skies were silent. With a hemorrhage of cash, airlines quickly began unloading planes and laying off thousands of pilots and support crews.

CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota and aviation correspondent Pete Muntean discussed pilot fatigue Monday on Interview Club, one of the offerings on CNN+’s new streaming platform.

Pilot fatigue “is something that’s been coming up for a while,” Mutean said. “And what that means is that the system is really stressed right now. A lot of people are flying back, especially over the Passover and Pesach holiday weekend.”

“Airlines are generally smaller and crews are struggling to keep up,” he said.

Compounding the problem: Some pilots have reached retirement age or decided to leave the profession, meaning that the major US passenger airlines have been trying to cope with a return to 90% traffic levels before the pandemic, but with fewer people to fly the planes.

And while aircrew work hours are highly regulated, unions say making pilots work their full hours means they can’t take time for stress caused by other issues, like bad weather delays. Pilots calling in sick due to fatigue are another reason flights will be cancelled.

‘It’s going to get worse’

Passengers wait in line to check in at Manchester Airport Terminal 1 in England on April 16, 2022. Airports across the UK have been having trouble getting flights off the ground due to staff shortages.

Passengers wait in line to check in at Manchester Airport Terminal 1 in England on April 16, 2022. Airports across the UK have been having trouble getting flights off the ground due to staff shortages.

Ioannis Alexopoulos/LNP/Shutterstock

To make matters worse, there have been similar problems at some airports, particularly in Europe. Scenes of chaos at UK airports over the past two weeks have been blamed in part on staff shortages, as facilities struggle to fill positions that have been streamlined during the pandemic.

That’s another harbinger of trouble to come, says consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, who has been monitoring the situation in the United States and Europe.
“I think it’s a preview of things to come, and I think things are going to get worse,” says Elliott, founder of the nonprofit Elliot Advocacy.

“Summer will be chaos,” he believes, so much so that he advises his followers to avoid Europe in August, the peak of the high season.

“I think we’ve been seeing some delays related to the pandemic, but I think they’re built into the equation right now; I don’t think that’s really a legitimate excuse,” she says.

“It’s everyone’s fault but their own. If they took a good look in the mirror, they’d realize that during the pandemic they’ve downsized and laid off staff, and now the demand is back and it’s taking them by surprise. They haven’t been able to hire staff fast enough to meet demand.

While Alaska and JetBlue are cutting flights, the surge in people wanting to buy plane tickets will present a temptation for Covid-hit airlines to try to recoup losses from the pandemic by selling seats to meet market demands.

But while numerous airlines are currently on recruitment drives, paying big bucks to hire new pilots, there’s still a chance that many flights in the coming months simply won’t take off as scheduled.

Massive mask confusion

A mix of masked and unmasked travelers make their way through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on April 19, 2022. Navigating the latest mask changes will be a challenge for travelers.

A mix of masked and unmasked travelers make their way through Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on April 19, 2022. Navigating the latest mask changes will be a challenge for travelers.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

For passengers hoping to take a much-needed trip after two years of restrictions, the experts’ advice is to buy tickets as soon as possible so the airline will be held accountable even if the flight is cut.

“Just book now,” says Courtney Miller, managing director of analytics for The Air Current.

“If they cancel my flight, they have to find me a new flight; if I wait, the risk is mine,” she says.

Even if passengers do get on a plane, Monday’s cancellation of the US government’s mandate to wear masks on planes could further add to the confusion. Many airlines have now made masks optional on board, but the rules will be different for international flights where face coverings may still be mandatory.

Residual uncertainty is likely to remain about whether it is advisable to wear masks, as the latest decision offset an earlier decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to extend the mask mandate and the situation now is under official review.

Common consensus is difficult to reach

Medical experts may find themselves in disagreement about the need to cover up mid-flight.

Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told CNN that she personally would still wear a mask on planes, trains and airports.

Generally speaking, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials told CNN Tuesday that travel mask mandates should continue, at least for a bit longer until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention US Diseases have more data on the spread of the disease. Subvariant BA.2.

“We believe that the use of masks in interstate transportation remains an important intervention worth continuing,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, medical director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

“The biggest concern is that we want people to be safe and we’re concerned that we’re not yet as far through the pandemic as people want, and the (Covid-19) rates are starting to go up,” Plescia said.

hard ground game

People wait in line for a vehicle at the Avis counter at the Miami International Airport Car Rental Center on April 12, 2021. Travelers may also find long waits and sky-high prices this year.

People wait in line for a vehicle at the Avis counter at the Miami International Airport Car Rental Center on April 12, 2021. Travelers may also find long waits and sky-high prices this year.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Zane Kerby, president of the American Society of Travel Advisors, warns there could be more headaches at the destination. For example, take car rental, another industry struggling to manage its post-pandemic pivot.

“It could be worse than last year,” he warns. “There are popular destinations in the US, Honolulu, LA, South Florida, where prices have skyrocketed to unbelievable levels.”

Last year, he was quoted $3,200 for a week’s rental in Hawaii.

“I didn’t want to buy the car, just rent it,” he says.

CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Elizabeth Wolfe, Travis Caldwell, Amanda Jackson and Jacqueline Howard contributed to this story.

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