After a slow season holiday season last year due to the pandemic, the travel industry is poised for a rebound.
For Thanksgiving, air travel is expected to be up 80 percent from last year, according to AAA Travel — and Tampa Bay is one of the top destinations in the U.S.
But airlines have struggled to keep up with demand recently, leaving many travelers concerned about disrupted holiday plans. More than 20,000 passengers flying in or out of Tampa International Airport were affected by Southwest Airlines’ delays and cancellations last month, said John Tiliacos, the airport’s vice president of operations and customer service. About 8,500 Tampa travelers were impacted by disruptions at American Airlines between Oct. 29 and Nov. 1.
So what can Tampa Bay holiday travelers expect this year and how can they prepare? Here’s a few things to know.
1. Airports will be busy. Be prepared.
There’s more demand for travel now since COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available. About 80,000 passengers are expected to pass through the Tampa airport on a peak travel day during the holiday season, airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said.
“Don’t wait until the last minute during the holidays,” Nipps said. “You definitely want to get to the airport earlier rather than later.”
Travelers should arrive at the airport two hours early for domestic flights and three hours for international, Nipps said. Leisure travelers, especially those who haven’t flown since the start of the pandemic, can move slower through security and check-in lines.
Tampa International Airport is launching Blue Express Curbside, so travelers without checked bags can skip ticketing and go straight to the main terminal. Even though it’s designed to decongest traffic within the airport, passengers should make time to get familiar with the new feature. It’ll open Tuesday — just in time for the busy Thanksgiving break.
2. Delays are common during the holidays. But it may be worse this year.
Winter storms that cause flight delays and cancellations happen almost every year, said Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer of the St. Petersburg travel insurance agency Squaremouth — but due to airline staffing shortages, Moncrief said the effects could be worse this year.
Recent disruptions have spiraled from a few hundred affected flights to over a thousand in a course of days. When issues from severe weather in Florida and at a Federal Aviation Administration facility arose in early October, Southwest said it struggled to reposition flight crews. A similar situation happened with American Airlines at the end of the month.
Domino effects on flights aren’t normal but they’ve become more frequent as demand for travel grows and airlines struggle to crank up operations with limited staff.
The Tampa airport has been preparing weeks in advance for the busy season, Nipps said. That includes expanding hours for airport retail shops for passenger needs and adding more customer service staff. The airport hosted a job fair Tuesday to help fill more than 600 positions for both the airport and airlines.
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Southwest reduced the number of flights scheduled for November and December, spokesperson Brian Parrish stated in an email. To prepare for the holiday season, the airline scaled back to support operations and staff. Southwest is on track to hire 5,000 employees this winter, Parrish said.
American Airlines is also hiring.
“The reality is that the hiring environment has changed as a result of the pandemic, and we’re pivoting to that new normal,” David Seymour, the airline’s chief operating officer said in a staff memo Friday.
In addition to nearly 1,800 flight attendants returning from leave in November and 800 more in December, American is planning to “aggressively onboard” about 600 flight attendants by the end of the year. Seymour also said there will be holiday pay incentives for employees working on peak travel days.
3. Travelers have more flexibility than before.
People were shaken by how vulnerable travel became during the pandemic, Moncrief said. But it also highlighted the flexibility of airlines.
“(Airlines) are still willing to accommodate travelers a bit more because there’s still enough uncertainty out there,” Moncrief said.
Squaremouth reported sales for travel insurance during the holiday season are up 70 percent compared to 2019. Moncrief said coverage for contracting COVID-19 is still leading the demand, but the agency has seen an uptick of people also asking about flight logjams in the last month.
4. Read the fine print.
Travelers should understand what airlines and travel insurance plans cover, Moncrief said.
“One of the more frustrating things for travelers and consumers is that there seemed to be vague language from airlines in terms of what caused the delays and cancellations. ... From an insurance standpoint, those reasons really matter,” Moncrief said.
Some policies cover all delays and cancellations, others are more specific. Selecting travel insurance outside of an airline’s policy can help travelers rebook a flight to another airline not experiencing issues rather than waiting around for the airline to figure it out, Moncrief said.
Airlines can also reimburse for food and lodging in cases of delays of at least three hours, Moncrief said.
“Don’t just accept what’s offered,” she said. “Really find out what are your options here.”
5. Being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is the safest way to travel, CDC says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends those who aren’t fully vaccinated against the coronavirus delay travel plans until they received either one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both doses of either Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna. Last year, holiday travel contributed to the spread of COVID-19 before vaccines were widely available. Florida’s winter wave peaked Jan. 8 with more than 19,000 new coronavirus cases, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The U.S. lifted bans on international travel Monday with new rules in place. Foreign travelers must be fully vaccinated and have a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before departure. The CDC also recommends all travelers entering the U.S. should get tested three to five days after arrival.
Wearing a mask is still required on all planes and inside all airports.