Prepare for This Year's
Cruel, Cruel Summer
THURSDAY, JUNE 20, 2019 -- Summer's here and the time is right for Dancing in the Street.

Um, nope that's not right. I mean, I love Martha Reeves, the first to have a hit with the Marvin Gaye classic. But, nope ...

Summer in the City. It's a catchy, gritty John Sebastian song--and I love me some Lovin' Spoonful--but that's not quite right either.

In the Summertime? Mungo Jerry frontman Ray Dorset had even better sideburns than John Sebastian, but "have a drink, have a drive" is terrible advice in these saner days.

Oh, here it is. Bananarama. Cruel Summer. That, sadly, is the ticket.

Summer begins tomorrow in the Northern Hemisphere. You know, warm weather. Vacations. Cookouts. Beaches. But if you're flying, listen to Bananarama: It's going to be a cruel, cruel summer. In fact, watch Ace of Base. It knew. There's gonna be lots of missed connections, sitting around with your luggage, schlepping your bags up and down stairs and, ultimately, wasted time.

Cruel, cruel summer, fellow travelers.

As we all know, summer flying is always tricky. Lots of inexperienced leisure travelers. Fickle weather. Frayed nerves. Overcrowded planes, overflowing club lounges, overworked employees and, of course, endless construction work on the access roads to and from the airport.

But this summer will be worse. Perhaps a lot worse. It's likely to be a crueler summer. What'll make this summer different from all others? Consider:

I warned you when the Canadian regulators and then the FAA grounded the Boeing 737 MAX that it would not be a quick fix or fast return to the skies. "Experts" who predicted a late-spring approval are looking silly now, but that doesn't help us much. Around 3 percent of existing capacity on five carriers (Southwest, American, United, Air Canada and WestJet) was operating using MAX aircraft. A few dozen more would have been delivered by now. That means the airlines are scrounging for planes to keep their schedules intact and more cancellations and delays as the planes that should have been retired already keep flying.

A long-running dispute between American Airlines and its mechanics has landed in court. Legalities aside, however, American management claims mechanics are employing go-slow and work-to-rules tactics to drag out repairs and put aircraft out of service. American, of course, is the nation's largest carrier by capacity. When it metaphorically sneezes, the entire system catches cold.

Delta Air Lines, which likes to boast of its peerless efficiency, yesterday suffered another IT meltdown. Needless to say, computer issues are no longer rare with U.S. carriers. According to a Government Accountability Office report released last week, there were 34 distinct IT outages between 2015 and 2017 and they affected 11 of 12 carriers surveyed. In other words, meltdowns happen. Expect them to happen more frequently this summer as the airlines bend--maybe break--under the strain.

The airline industry trade group predicts another record summer, a 3.4 percent passenger increase over last year. That means more than 250 million flyers between June 1 and August 31. Unfortunately, the nation's airline performance is already weakening. In April, the most recent month for which the government has compiled figures, cancellations jumped to 2.4 percent of scheduled flights. That's more than double the cancellation rate of April, 2018. On-time performance fell below 80 percent, down from 81.3 percent in April, 2018. Mishandled baggage rates are up, too, as are tarmac delays.

Think lines at TSA security checkpoints are too long now? Buckle up. The Trump Administration is diverting TSA personnel and funding to the Mexican border. Regardless of how you feel politically about the border situation, diverting TSA assets at the busiest time of the year can't bode well for airport conditions.

So what do we do about the prospect of this cruel, cruel, crueler summer? How do we use the warning of that earworm from hell to better our odds of avoiding a summer of travel hell? Some thoughts, none of which are revolutionary, but all of which may help.

      Do the homework. Choose itineraries carefully. Weeks worth of operational statistics for specific flights are available at sites such as Different flights on the same route do perform differently. History is predictive when it comes to airlines.

      Avoid commuter carriers. It's been shown over and over, in summer meltdowns and winter whiteouts, that airlines cancel commuter flights before mainline runs. Sometimes avoiding a regional airline is as simple as picking the right flight since airlines often mix mainline and commuter service on the same route. Sometimes it means flying a different airline since airports are not serviced with the same equipment by every airline. Sometimes it might mean driving to a nearby hub rather than a short feeder flight. And a reminder: Southwest Airlines has no commuter carrier feed and JetBlue has only a few runs serviced by commuter partners.

      Alway fly nonstops. Connecting itineraries sometimes may be cheaper. But nonstops are always--always--the better option. The reason? Simple mathematics. A connecting itinerary requires two takeoffs and two landings. A nonstop requires just one of each. Why double the chances of delays and cancellations?

      Bow to realities. If you must fly connections, don't make believe the shortest connection is the best option. Sometimes building an itinerary with additional time between flights is a wiser option. If you have to spend an extra hour at a hub, complaining about how crowded the lounge is, that's still better than blowing a connection and cooling your heels for hours as you try to book a replacement.

      Fly early. I've written and shown the numbers so frequently that this one should be reflex: The earlier the flight, the better your chance of on-time operation. It's just the reality of airlines. As the day drags on, delays cascade and lengthen. Always choose the earliest flight you can.

      Obsess about the weather. We live such compartmentalized lives these days that we may not focus on the weather outside our door not to mention conditions in the next city on our agenda. Be wiser., the Web site of the National Weather Service, allows you to drill down to county-level forecasts and conditions. It's a powerful planning tool. And if your summer travel includes areas prone to hurricanes and cyclones, consult the National Hurricane Center Web site. It's the raw data upon which all the commercial forecasters rely.

Finally, may I direct you to the "Travel Conditions" section of the home page? It collects the best current resources in one place for one-click access.

And, oh, in case you can't stand the oldies, here's a new version of Cruel Summer. It was recorded by Kari Kimmel for the second season of Cobra Kai, the streaming series based on the original Karate Kid movies. Because, you know, wax on, wax off--and, really, what else was Ralph Macchio doing?