After a tumultuous summer of air travel delays and cancellations, fall air travel has been remarkably placid. Face mask mandates have long ended, and the two most active hurricane season months brought just one major storm, Hurricane Ian, to the continental United States, as well as a late-season Category 1 storm, Hurricane Nicole. This has mostly kept the airlines under the radar for problems and issues that directly impact travelers.
With the busy holiday travel period just one week away, labor storms are now brewing in two legacy airlines that could derail many people’s travel plans.
Both United and Delta airlines are in negotiations with their pilot unions for a new contract.
United pilots overwhelmingly rejected a proposed contract. The pilot union argues that their members should be rewarded, after taking the airline through the turbulent COVID-19 pandemic. United reported a $942 million profit for the third quarter in 2022.
Delta pilots voted to authorize a strike, with their negotiations for a new contract stalled since they began in April 2019. There are several hurdles that must be jumped before a strike can occur, including mediation and a requisite 30-day cooling-off period.
The good news is that Thanksgiving travel cannot be impacted by any strikes. However, the week between Christmas and New Year remains vulnerable. Delta CEO Ed Bastian stated that a pilot strike would not impact holiday travelers.
Of course, nothing prevents pilots from calling in sick, effectively creating a shortage of pilots even if there is no formal strike. With three viruses actively circulating (COVID-19, seasonal influenza and RSV), upper respiratory infections abound and will continue to grow, as more people gather indoors during the colder months.
So, what can travelers do to minimize the risk of their flights being impacted?
Book direct flights: If one flight has a chance to be canceled or delayed, the likelihood that one of two is impacted is that much greater. Direct flights — also called non-stop flights, which have no connecting flights to reach your final destination — reduce your risk of interruptions. Also, if your direct flight is canceled, there are likely other flight options that can serve as your backup. This means working to fly out of hub airports rather than relying on smaller regional airports as your point of departure, if feasible.
Along these lines, if you must book a connection, book one that flies through a hub that will be less likely to be impacted by winter storms. The general rule is the more southern the hub airport, the best chance for an uninterrupted connection during the late fall and winter months.
Avoid the first and last flights of the day: Conventional wisdom suggests starting your travel as early as possible in the day. This gives you more options if things go awry. The last flight of the day is a landmine for travel interruptions. However, especially if you must fly out of a smaller or regional airport, the plane that will take you out on the first flight in the morning was the same equipment used for the last flight of the previous day. In some cases, it may even require the same flight crew. Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has flight crew hour limitations and minimal crew rest requirements, a late arriving flight into an airport can mean a late departing early flight the next day.
Pack light: Getting through airport security and around the airport means keeping your carry-on items and checked baggage to a minimum. Instead of bringing holiday gifts with you, ship them before your trip so they are waiting for you at your final destination. Lugging heavy or bulky baggage through an airport to make a tight connection adds unnecessary risks to your travel day.
Travel on less popular days: Popular travel days are those just before and after a holiday. If you can arrive even earlier, and depart even later, airplanes may be less full and airfares may even be a bit lower. With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year, many people will be flying on the Thursday and Friday of that week. Surprisingly to some, Christmas Day itself is often a low-volume travel day. If you can shift your holiday celebrations around flying on Christmas Day, you may find airplanes less congested and airfares easier to digest.
There is no way to guarantee disruption-free air travel. Whether it be pilot disruptions, weather events or even airplane mechanical issues, unexpected issues can and will happen. The best you can do is reduce your risk of disruptions and maintain flexibility to move with the flow as the unexpected invariably occurs.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He has also studied aviation security for over 25 years, providing the technical foundations for risk-based security and TSA PreCheck.