Why even bother flying?
Air travel in 2022 is a roller coaster. Is it worth the trouble?
Somewhere between the unexpected wave of spring break flight cancellations last weekend and the shocking news that JetBlue Airways wanted to buy perennial bottom-feeder Spirit Airways, it occurred to me that air travel might not be worth the trouble anymore.
Air travel, and especially domestic air travel, is such a hassle. Are we better off just driving this summer?
OK, I realize saying that makes me sound like the contrarian I am. But things have gone from bad to worse in just a few days.
Are you flying somewhere this summer?
Are you still planning to fly somewhere this summer? Or have the last few days made you rethink your flight plans? I’d love to hear your comments. You can scroll all the way down or just push the red button.
Flying could be awful this summer
The outlook for domestic airline passengers went from bad to worse in just a few days.
Last weekend, U.S. airlines canceled and delayed more than 10,000 flights because of storms in Florida and an "intermittent technology issue" at Southwest Airlines. Passengers across the country were stranded in what some fear is a preview of the upcoming summer travel season.
Domestic airfares have risen more than 36 percent since the start of the year, and they're on track to exceed 2019 levels in some markets by the summer. Hopper predicts fares will rise 7 percent month to month through June, driven by higher fuel costs and surging demand. For many air travelers, that's making flying unaffordable.
On Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed the largest-ever fines against two passengers for alleged unruly behavior. The fines of $81,950 and $77,272 are against air travelers who allegedly kicked, bit and spit at their flight crew. (There's no excuse for that kind of behavior, but the fines are also unfair. When airlines misbehave, their fines are so laughably small that they are practically an invitation to continue violating the law.)
And then there's the love triangle between Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit. Last week, JetBlue made an unsolicited offer to buy Spirit for $3.6 billion, with its CEO arguing that the airlines have "a lot in common." They do, and that's not necessarily a positive thing, as I noted in my latest USA Today column.
In that story, I didn't mention the short-term implications of a pending merger. Airlines tend to behave erratically when they're doing the merger two-step. Sometimes, they're on their best behavior, hoping to impress regulators. But more often, they neglect customers because morale is so low.
How would you feel if you were a JetBlue employee now and your airline was about to buy Spirit? Yeah, me too.
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What's the alternative?
Everyone wants to travel now, according to the latest Morning Consult numbers.
Going, going … Americans want to travel again. But how?
There's so much demand — and yes, I think we can use the phrase "pent up" this time — that it's hard to imagine you won't spend half of your next trip standing in a long line at the airport.
But will everyone follow the herd to the airport? I hope not.
Not everyone is comfortable with flying today. Mask rules are still in effect. Occasionally, passengers still lash out at each other. That tends to happen when you're in a pressurized aluminum tube, squeezed into a small seat, and forced to wrap your face in cloth — oh, and maybe you've had a drink or two
Even with higher fuel prices, driving is almost always less expensive than flying. It depends where you're headed, of course. If you need to get to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or from coast to coast, flying may make more sense. But if you need to get from Washington, D.C., to the Carolinas or Florida, flying makes little sense.
What's the alternative? If you can wait just a little while longer (like, until September), you'll find the crowds are gone, the airfares are back to reasonable levels, and in all likelihood, those masking requirements will also be history. If I were a bettin' man, I'd say a late summer trip right after Labor Day will be just perfect.
Share if you dare
It takes real courage to share this edition of Elliott Confidential with a friend, especially one of those friends who loves to collect miles and can’t say anything bad about airlines. Do you care enough to do it? Push the red button. Go ahead. I dare you.
Long term, how do we make this better?
We don't have to face another summer like this one, but a few things have to happen.
The government has to stop these mergers
The JetBlue-Spirit or Frontier-Spirit mergers are bad for consumers. Period. The Department of Justice has to stop them. If it doesn't, we'll face higher fares and fewer choices — and more seasons like the dreaded summer of 2022. You read it here first.
Travelers need to get smart about flying
Look, just because everyone else is flying doesn't mean you have to. Book an airline ticket only if it makes sense. Not because it's cool to fly or because you'll get more miles. Do it only when it makes sense. Otherwise, we'll continue to have these large surges in demand, leading to higher fares and crazy crowds.
We need our own EC 261
The European airline consumer protection rule heavily disincentivizes airlines from canceling flights. If we had our version of EC 261, the requirement to compensate passengers might stop airlines from canceling thousands of flights.
I still hope we can avoid the worst possible outcome — a summer of crowded terminals, frequent cancellations, sky-high fares and furious passengers. But from where I'm sitting, it looks like that's the direction in which we're headed.
There's still time to stop this roller coaster.
What are you doing this summer?
Are you going anywhere? How do you plan to get there? Have the events of the last week changed the way you plan to reach your destination? The comments section is open.
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott decided to hone in on the plunge of a suspenseful roller coaster ride. "I worry about a few screws being loose just before I go on a roller coaster," he admits. Do travelers who decide to fly also have a few screws loose when they board a plane this summer. Fasten your seatbelts. The ride is about to begin.