Travel has come back, at least domestically. Numerous countries are starting to fully re-open across the world. Still, domestic travel far outpaces international and leisure travel far outpaces business. But whether you call it ‘revenge travel’ (a concept I never quite bought into) or just intertemporal substitution – or more people with greater flexibility and stronger balance sheets – travel is back.
American Airlines even just had its 3 biggest ticket sales days ever. There could be a few monkey wrenches along the way – Covid-19 case declines have slowed as Omicron B.A.2 has become dominant. The base case is this doesn’t mean a fresh wave, or one that affects travel, but it could.
With domestic leisure travel dominant and in many cases outpacing 2019, and in some cases by enough to make up for the lack of international and business travel, the new travel reality is different.
- Long security lines. You don’t just need PreCheck, you need CLEAR. It’s not available everywhere, but it’s most places where the lines are longest (although if American Airlines controls the terminal then don’t expect them to be allowing CLEAR since it is part-owned by both Delta and United).
- Long telephone hold times. Hold times trying to reach Delta are so bad it was a topic of conversation during an earnings call, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said if customers can’t get through just to e-mail him. Good luck with that. But the problem is hardly limited to Delta.
There are fewer reservations agents. Some were shed from payrolls during the pandemic, despite billions in subsidies meant to keep airlines from doing that. American moved hundreds of call center agents to airports. It takes time to hire and train more. Most of all, though, leisure travelers need more hand holding so call center time is greater on a per-passenger basis than before the pandemic.
With American you can dial an international call center (U.K. and Sydney reservations are recommended) to avoid long holds, and the American Airlines twitter team can be helpful via direct message. By contrast Delta’s international numbers no longer get you separate call centers, but at least there’s a special number to get through to the airline when your travel is within 48 hours. Delta’s twitter team is unlikely to help you though.
- There’s a shortcut now for the airport Starbucks. One of the biggest airport lines before the pandemic was for Starbucks, especially in the morning. It was often worse than TSA, but at least it was voluntary and they didn’t grope you when you wanted a coffee. Now there’s a way to skip the line. Starbucks app pre-ordering is now available at most airport locations. Make sure you have a Starbucks card linked to your account, though, because you may not be able to pay via credit card in-app when pre-ordering from an airport Starbucks. (You can top off your Starbucks card in-app before ordering if you need to.)
My home city of Austin will see 40% more seats this summer than in 2019. Of course it’s a high growth area, a primarily domestic airport, and one that’s seen American Airlines take an aggressive position during the pandemic.
However I can no longer count on leaving my house 1 hour 10 minutes prior to departure (I’m 24 minutes from the airport). Monday morning after a big event there’ll be a huge line of cars just to approach the terminal (head to arrivals downstairs rather than departures). Security will be out the door – the same situation may hold for late afternoon departures as well.
Security lines will be out the door. PreCheck lines will be out the door. Even CLEAR can have long lines, both to get verified and to merge into PreCheck (the main checkpoint, closer to the Southwest and Delta gates, has more PreCheck lanes at peak times and can be faster).
But it’s not just lines at the airport, Uber and Lyft are more variable too. Monday morning it took me 20 minutes with both apps open for a driver to accept my airport ride. He was ultimately coming from nearly 18 miles away. Couple that with the uncertainty of security lines and it means having to leave earlier for the airport than I’m used to.
Heavy travel, scarce gig workers, and insufficient airport TSA staffing (or security lane infrastructure) all combine to make the travel experience a greater hassle – and that’s without checking bags or needing airline ticket counter assistance. Thank goodness at least the morning Starbucks is easier. Order it while you’re in line at security and then pick it up as you cruise on by to your gate.