US Airlines brace for tough holiday season, busy 2022

Should holiday travelers expect repeats of last weekend's mass cancellations and delays? What's in store for holiday travel and beyond?

Henry Harteveldt is President of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, a worldwide air travel market research firm. "More people do plan to travel this year for the holidays than did travel last year and so it may be more difficult to find the lowest fare seats out there," said Harteveldt. 

Why? "Earlier in the year, in the spring and summer, airlines were aggressively building back their schedules ahead of their ability to actually operate those flights," said Harteveldt. 

As a result, American and Southwest imploded in May and June, long before last weekend's Southwest's mass cancellations. "Several airlines, including Southwest, reduced the number of flights they had scheduled for the fall just to make sure that they had a little bit of buffer room," said Harteveldt.

Most airlines have spoke and hub system where planes go to and return to their point of origin. When disrupted, they can reorganize pretty quickly. But, Southwest hedge hops from one location, to another and then often to even others; generally ending up at a different airport. 

When disruptions arise, it's far harder to reset the system as we saw last weekend. 

"We've seen this with Southwest before, this is not their first time at the disruption rodeo and what concerns me is, it may not be their last," said Harteveldt. 

But even for spoke and hub airlines, a wide disruption, say awful weather across the midwest, can create similar havoc. 

So, what are we looking at? Harteveldt said, "We will see airlines, all airlines, thin out a little bit more of their schedules, between now and let's say the third week of November ahead of Thanksgiving." 

That gives airlines just over a month to prepare for heavy holiday travel if they can manage it by retraining, re certifying, and security clearing enough air crews.

But, many employees were either laid off, bought out, or took early retirement last year. So, finding fast replacements is not an easy task. And, a tidal wave of traffic is coming. 

"I anticipate that 2022 will see a steady resumption of travel with more people traveling both domestically and internationally, as well as more people traveling for business as well as personal reasons," said Harteveldt.

Holiday travelers shop and buy now.