You'll Get Kicked
On Route 666
THURSDAY, MAY 26, 2022 -- Friends are visiting the vast, worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters tomorrow in advance of their first flights on La Compagnie, the all-business-class boutique carrier fitfully building a transatlantic route network.

When they leave for the airport on Saturday, I think I'll go to bed, pull the covers up over my head and hide out until September.

I'm no hermit. But I am afeared of what's coming. They'll be no kicks on Route 66 this summer. In fact, travel this summer is looking like one long, nasty, dysfunctional ride on Route 666.

It's gonna be hell, folks. High prices, awful services, shortages. Grumbling, inexperienced travelers and overworked staffs. A toxic and almost inexplicable stew of pre-Covid expectations and post-pandemic realities.

I know this is a travel site and talking travel is what we do. But here's my best advice for the summer of 2022: Stay home. Take no unnecessary business trips and abandon any plans you may have to travel for "fun."

Yes, it is going to be that bad. No amount of "careful planning" or "adjusting expectations" can protect you. No amount of cash or miles will make it better, either.

All roads this summer lead to Route 666 and the only way to win is not to play.

Let's start at the very beginning. No matter what flight schedule you're perusing, trust me when I tell you that it's a lie. Airlines have posted service plans that simply cannot be operated. At various points this year, carriers abruptly trimmed their networks, admitting without admitting it that they have been engaged in a fraud, selling flights they cannot and will not deliver. Latest example: After another service meltdown last weekend, Delta Air Lines this week told staff as many as 100 daily flights are being pulled from its schedule in June, July and August. The cuts begin this weekend, in the middle of the Memorial Day rush. Like other carriers, Delta believes preemptive cancellations are less disruptive than dumping flights after travelers depart for the airport. That may be true on paper, but schedule cuts are schedule cuts and many travelers are going to be inconvenienced. If you're preemptively cancelled and told your only alternate flight is days after you originally expected to travel, the pain is real.

The TSA says passenger traffic at U.S. airports last weekend was 95% of 2019 numbers. With so much pent-up demand from two years of pandemic, we may be at or above those record 2019 levels many days this summer. The traveler mix will be comparatively troublesome, too: many more inexperienced leisure travelers and many fewer business flyers. That is a recipe for chaos. Leisure travelers are easier to fluster, easier to anger and less capable of negotiating alternatives or smoothing out their delays. The 2022 traveler is not going to take to delays and cancellations well and it can get ugly and physical in a hurry.

We gave airlines $50 billion or more with the express purpose of keeping employees working during the pandemic. Instead, they laid off staff and offered too-good-to-ignore buyouts to senior employees. Even by conservative estimates, airlines remain around 10% understaffed compared to 2019 levels. But it's not just the airlines. Airports can't find workers, either. That means many closed shops and others operating on reduced hours. The TSA is scrambling to fill its checkpoint rosters. All this while traffic is surging again. It's not a solely an American issue, either. The hub airports in Amsterdam, Dublin and other European cities are experiencing similar meltdowns. And can you remember a summer when London/Heathrow didn't collapse under the weight of the travel demand being pushed through the airport?

Back-to-normal travel numbers with greatly reduced staffing and thinned-out schedules is a recipe for disaster and oversold flights. Then throw in the geographic reality: Much of the world remains closed to travel. Huge swathes of Asia are still not accepting visitors. Witness the 99% decline in traffic at Hong Kong, for example. Japan, Korea, Thailand and other places are still serving a fraction of their 2019 volumes. Australia and New Zealand are open again, but only at a much slower pace with fewer flights. Russia and many parts of Eastern Europe are obviously no-fly zones. That means most of the Americans looking to get on the road in 2019 numbers are being funneled to Western Europe, the Caribbean or Latin America. That'll only exacerbate the crowding and the problems.

As we discussed several weeks ago, hotels are also a mess. They are understaffed, offering fewer perks and amenities than ever yet charging stratospheric rates. (Average nightly rates are already more than 13% higher than in 2019.) That is bad enough if you are trying to make do in a big-city hotel, but it is a nightmare at more isolated resort destinations. Imagine your surprise when you show up for breakfast at the resort restaurant to find it closed--or overwhelmed with an hours-long wait--and the only other option is miles away off resort grounds.

The average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline hit $4.60 today, another all-time record, says the AAA. Sure, that's gonna put a crimp in summer road trips, but it literally affects everything: airfares, room rates, car-rental costs, restaurant meals, even a tube of toothpaste to replace the one you forgot to stick in your carry-on bag. There's no indication right now that prices are slowing the travel rebound, but it's sure as hell is going to put travelers in a sour mood as they tote up their bills.

I have always been a great advocate of having a Plan B, backing up flight routings and hotel bookings and knowing your options when things go wrong on the road. But I don't think there can be Plan Bs this year. So many factors can cause so much havoc. Even something as minor as a summer storm may destroy your plans because airlines and hotels simply don't have back-up capacity to accommodate the disruptions in a timely manner. This is going to be a singularly awful summer. No amount of advance planning can help you avoid it.

What am I saying here? Seriously, stay ay home. Sit out this summer if you can. I know you had other plans for a holiday. I know your business might benefit if you get back on the road. I know two years of being mostly housebound has created an insatiable desire to travel somewhere.

But I just don't see the benefit of turning onto Route 666 this summer.