Travel In The New World Is Different Than It Used To Be, But Not Because Of Covid

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. How is it not because of COVID and its response

    We had labor disruption (temp layoffs, then people rehired elsewhere), govt stimulus that gave people more freedom to seek other employment, some people using exposure as a reason valid or not to avoid working with the public, broader remote flexibility which enables more leisure travel, which puts extra burden on destinations and origins that were less business heavy

    Sounds like the easiest travel will be out of previously higher wage business centers like SFO, NYC, ORD. Facilities built for biz capacity that hasn’t fully returned, and staff previously paid higher wages than ‘lower cost’ states like TX, NC, etc where the staffing shortages seem most acute.

  2. I tried to call British Airways several times last week. The automated response was “due to our need to relieve our staff, we won’t be taking your call.” Or words to that effect. It’s not like I could hold, which I was prepared and willing to do for hours if need be. Because they disconnected the call.

  3. KLM has done the same thing to me. Call back when we’re not so busy. 2023 perhaps?

  4. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere but staffing at most companies is insufficient to handle the call volume. Part of the problem are the companies themselves and part of it are the customers.

    Companies need to put almost everything possible online so people don’t have to call in. Too often you can’t do things online and you are forced to call in.

    And there are too many customers that refuse to use technology and clog up the phones with things you can do online. Those people should be forced to pay extra for tying up the phones.

  5. I call AA at their Sydney number on Skype and get assisted right away. Don’t waste your time calling us number.

  6. At DFW, head to terminal E for Clear. There is a small AA presence in Terminal E, but chances are good you will need to take the train to your terminal. As United and Delta are in Terminal E, there are two Clear checkpoints. But, you will rarely need Clear there, as the lines are generally short. The terminal parking is plentiful. But, you will need to check luggage earlier, as it has to go through the interterminal baggage conveyers.

  7. Once again American Airlines screws their customers for petty reasons…..

  8. All good points but other than some stuff like pre-ordering Starbucks it’s really just back to pre-covid times. Long lines, long wait times, poorly staffed CSR’s, AA lacking CLEAR, etc. Sure Austin is worse but that’s Austin’s fault. They continue to add flights with not enough space. Austin used to be a sweet little airport to fly in or out of but like the rest of Austin, a bunch of people moved there and ruined it. Just look at the local traffic, non-homeless panhandlers, and local politics.

  9. So Gary flies from an overcrowded expanding airport and generalizes that to the “new normal” travel experience for all?

    Yesterday I completed a 6 airport international trip, includiing customs and immigration at ORD (with Global Entry). Longest line i encountered – excluding boarding the aircraft- was for the men’s room at DCA.

  10. @DaninMCI & @Bob: Totally agree with both comments. Gary moving from Austin could be your best plan of action. It’s only going to get worse considering how the town is operated. Not complicated people!

  11. Always wondered why I never seemed to be able to utilize my CLEAR membership. Had no idea about the American blocking them within their terminals ordeal. Thanks for the re-share, Gary.

    Really sums up American management well. They’d rather pax wait in insane TSA lines and get even more agitated pre-flight just so they can “stick-it” to Delta/United. What a joke of an airline.

  12. I think the term “revenge” travel is fair. It appears that the hotel and loyalty programs are having their revenge on us travelers to make up for lost dollars during the pandemic. Hotel programs are closing lounges, being stingy with benefits and nickel and diming with costs on us poor travelers. My recent trip to Hawaii was horrible travel was expensive and restaurants often opened late or closed early. The reason not because of demand but because people don’t want to work for $20 an hour or employers don’t want to pay appropriate wages. Car rental prices and hotel prices doubled. Too many people travelling to Hawaii and too limited the supply of products and people willing to work.

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