Holiday Travel Heats Up, But Service Cuts Continue

(This is a story we wrote for NBC News)

Airlines service cuts that ramped up this summer show no sign of relenting this holiday season, leaving more travelers likely to pay higher fares for fuller planes at crowded airports.

Service has been slashed in half from pre-pandemic levels at 59 small and regional U.S. airports, according to the Regional Airline Association, largely because of pilot shortages and high fuel costs. As of last month, 112 airports had lost at least a third of their flights, the RAA’s review of flight schedules shows, out of 430 U.S. airports with scheduled passenger service.

“The drastic decline between 2019 and 2022 is dramatic and, if not unprecedented, only rivaled by post-9/11 loss,” said Faye Malarkey Black, the RAA’s president and CEO. And while dozens of small cities receive federal subsidies to support air travel through the long-running Essential Air Service program, Malarkey Black said even 29 of those communities are facing potential cutbacks due to pilot shortages.

“And I believe the knife is still falling,” she added, with more reductions expected by year’s end.

Americans already face pricier airfares this season. The travel platform Hopper has forecast Thanksgiving and Christmas airfares to be the highest in five years, with domestic round-trip tickets averaging $350 over Thanksgiving and $463 at Christmas. Overall, airfares were up by a whopping 43% in October from the same month a year ago, the latest inflation data show.

More headaches for communities with no air service

“Travelers who need to drive far to reach another airport and pay for short- or long-term parking while they are on their trip are likely to see total costs for holiday travel rise this year,” said Hopper’s lead economist, Hayley Berg. Hotel stays and extra meals before or after those flights will also eat into wallets.

For the regional flights that do remain, “fares are up markedly as a result of service cuts,” said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Ithaca Tompkins International Airport in New York, for example, lost its twice-daily American Airlines flight to Philadelphia on Sept. 6. On the remaining United Airlines route to Newark, New Jersey, and the Delta Air Lines route to Detroit, Hopper found the fares for Thanksgiving and Christmas at Tompkins to be around double the national average for domestic round-trip flights. Round-trip Thanksgiving airfare from Ithaca to U.S. destinations is averaging $552, 39% higher than at the same time in 2019, according to Hopper. And Christmas flights from the city cost 10% more than 2019, at $605.

Major U.S. carriers have cited pilot shortages for their cuts at regional airports, with some of them saying the labor crunch would take years to resolve.

United didn’t comment on the potential for further trims. It said it “regularly adjusts its schedule for a variety of reasons including demand, the broader needs of our network and more.”

American, which has left 15 cities since 2020, still has 100 regional aircraft on the ground that it doesn’t have enough pilots to fly, said spokeswoman Andrea Koos, who added that the airline is working with its three wholly owned regional carriers “to ensure we’re able to operate a more reliable regional schedule in the future.”

Delta said that it hasn’t pulled out of any airports entirely since 2020 and that its staffing challenges are in line with the industry’s.

So far, however, consumers appear undeterred. Nearly half of holiday travelers plan to fly, up from 37% last year, according to the 2022 Deloitte Holiday Travel survey. Those looking to save some money should consider shifting their celebration dates by a few days, travel experts say, or at least avoiding the busiest days to dodge the highest fares at regional airports and larger hubs alike.

Hopper said it expects comparatively lower ticket prices on the Monday before Thanksgiving, on Thanksgiving Day, and on the Friday afterward compared with the Tuesday and Wednesday of that week. And for Christmas, Hopper suggests looking at flights on the Monday or Tuesday before the holiday, which falls on a weekend this year.

Tips to Tackle Holiday Travel

If you’re driving to an airport, check for discount parking coupons there or at nearby lots. And make a parking reservation so you don’t risk being turned away from a full lot. If you need to book a hotel so you can catch an early flight, explore “Park, Stay, Fly” rates at hotels near your airport, which often combine a week or more of parking with a one-night stay.

Holiday travelers should also scan Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Travel Tuesday sales posted by travel booking platforms, hotel chains, and individual properties — many of which are already live. While there will be blackout dates, some of the promotions may include discounted or upgraded stays at airport hotels over the holidays.

In the meantime, some airports in cities suffering cutbacks say they’re fighting to restore lost service.

“The loss of flights has affected businesses and educational institutions in our area,” said Roxan Noble, the director of Tompkins International Airport in Ithaca. She said she’s spending a lot of time on the phone and on Zoom asking major carriers to return or increase their service.

“We’re also looking for a low-cost carrier to come in to serve our leisure market,” she said. “It may not fully fill the gap, but it would help.”

Toledo Express Airport in Ohio lost American Airlines flights to Chicago and to Charlotte, North Carolina, leaving only the ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant offering Toledo residents service to Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona, and to three Florida locations — Fort Myers/Punta Gorda, Orlando/Sanford and Tampa/St. Petersburg — albeit with nondaily flights.

“All airports are vying for the same aircraft, the same pilots, the same crews,” said Joe Cappel, the vice president of business development for the Toledo-Luca County Port Authority in Ohio. So, in addition to putting competitive incentive packages in front of airlines, Toledo Express is also offering to help new airlines with everything from marketing and advertising to baggage handling. “Anything you can think of is on the table,” he said.

And Dubuque — where the lack of air service “disconnects [the city] from the global marketplace,” according to Molly Grover, the president and CEO of the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce — has just hired a public relations firm to help pool the efforts of similarly affected communities to work on restoring air service.

“Commercial air service is an expected amenity to both businesses and residents alike,” Grover said, promising to work “relentlessly, tenaciously” to restore it

How satisfied are passengers with airports right now?

Flown anywhere lately?

After being grounded by the pandemic, most folks are pretty darn excited to go to the airport to fly to just about anywhere.

But once at the airport, the excitement seems to fade.

That’s what the J.D. Power 2022 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, released on Wednesday, tells us.

According to the study, satisfaction is down 25 points (on a 1,000-point scale) this year because travelers are disappointed with fewer flights, more cancellations, crowded terminals, limited food and beverage offerings in the terminals, and limited places to park.

“The combination of pent-up demand for air travel, the nationwide labor shortage, and steadily rising prices on everything from jet fuel to a bottle of water has created a scenario in which airports are extremely crowded and passengers are increasingly frustrated—and it is likely to continue through 2023,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power.

“In some ways, this is a return to normal as larger crowds at airports tend to make travelers more frazzled, but in cases where parking lots are over capacity, gates are standing room only and restaurants and bars are not even open to offer some reprieve, it is clear that increased capacity in airports can’t come soon enough.”

Airport Rankings

That doesn’t mean travelers are more pleased with some airports than others.

In the ‘mega’ category – Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport ranks highest in passenger satisfaction, followed by San Francisco International Airport. Both Detroit Metropolitan
Wayne County Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport land in a third-place tie.

Among large airports, Tampa International Airport ranks highest, followed by John Wayne Airport,
Orange County and Dallas Love Field.

And in the medium airport category, Indianapolis International Airport ranks highest, with Pittsburgh
International Airport in second place and Jacksonville International Airport and Southwest
Florida International Airport in a third-place tie.

The 2022 North America Airport Satisfaction Study measures traveler satisfaction by looking at six factors. In order of importance) those factors are terminal facilities; airport arrival/departure; baggage claim; security check; check-in/baggage check; and food, beverage and retail.

Where does your favorite airport land in the ratings this year?

Site visit: Portland International Airport

It’s been a whlie since we stopped in at Portland International Airport (PDX).

So we fixed that with a quick visit to see how construction is going on the new roof and other spaces, do some shopping, and get a shoe selfie with the terminal’s one remaining patch of old PDX carpet.

A full story will follow, but here are a few some snaps from a 9,000-step hike through the PDX Airport.

The New Roof

A new 9-acre mass timber roof has been built off-site and will be put in place over the existing terminal and a terminal extension in giant pieces. The first piece of the roof has just been put in place.

The Last Patch of Carpet

The old carpet pattern at PDX has gained iconic status. A new patch is promised for someplace in the new main terminal. But until then, the only place to see and snap a selfie with a remnant of the old rug is in the tiny ‘listening room’ at the back of Tender Loving Empire’s store on Concourse E, near Gate E5.


We didn’t get to do all the shopping we’d planned. But were were delighted to see the great sticker selection at the Made in Oregon shop on Concourse C.

And at the Tillamook Market on Concourse E we spotted ice-cream from Oregon’s famed Tillamook Creamery as well as Tillamook Cheese Curds, which are only only sold here, at the creamery out in Tillamook (86 miles from the airport) and online.

Travel Tidbits from an airport near you

Happy Thursday. Today we present a quick round-up of some travel tidbits and news-to-use, courtesy of an airport near you.

Ride public transit free to Denver International Airport

How did we miss this?!

Chicken and Waffles Now Being Served at PDX Airport

Look at You, Chicago O’Hare International Airport

Now That’s a Beer Run

Airport or Museum? You Decide

Stuck at the Airport goes to London

Tower Bridge at night – Courtesy London Partners

The Stuck at the Airport team is in London this week on a trip organized by our friends at Gatwick Airport (LGW).

The assignment?

Find out if it’s easy to land at Gatwick Airport on a flight from the U.S. See if it’s easy to take public transit to and from the airport to London, Brighton, and other nearby destinations. And find fun things to do.

As they say: tough job, but someone has to do it. And Stuck at the Airport is up for the challenge.

Here’s how our journey is going so far.

Seattle to New York

Our ride from our home base airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) was on JetBlue, to connect to one of JetBlue’s flights to Gatwick.

The airline begins service between Boston and Gatwick on August 4, and we’ll be on the inaugural flight out of Gatwick. So stay tuned for details from that adventure.

But first: the TWA Hotel

We chose an overnight layover at JKF so that we could stay at the TWA Hotel, which is oh-so-conveniently connected to JetBlue’s T5 terminal via elevator and a red-carpeted flight tube that is the perfect passageway to the 1960s.

The hotel is built inside the restored and reimagined Eero Saarinen’s landmark 1962 TWA Flight Center at JFK and has restaurants, bars, retail outlets, and some fun 60s throwback activities in the lobby.

There’s an infinity pool on the roof (fees apply) and, out in the back on the ‘tarmac, there’s a Lockheed Constellation “Connie” L-1649A that has been transformed into a cocktail lounge. This summer, guests and visitors can go roller skating rink or ride bumper cars on the hotel’s tarmac as well. (Fees apply).

You don’t need to be staying at the hotel to enjoy the lobby and tarmac activities. And many activities, including photo ops in cool spaces, Twister, and long-distance phone calls on retro pay phones, are free.

Arriving at Gatwick Airport

The JetBlue flights to Gatwick Airport leave JFK at around 7:30 pm and land at Gatwick the following morning at around 7:30 am. That means you can plan a full day in the city.

Our flight landed early, so I was glad Gatwick Airport had arranged for me to rest and refresh at the onsite YOTELAIR London Gatwick Airport.

This was the first YOTEL to open in the United Kingdom – way back in 2007 – and offers short-stays (from 4 to 8 hours) in very compact ‘cabins’ that are perfect for naps, a refresh after a long flight, or an overnight if you have a very early flight or late arrival.

Each cabin is super compact, with a bed, bathroom, small desk, WiFi, USB ports, mood lighting, smart TV, and a little bit of storage space. (You can also leave luggage at the front desk, or ‘Mission Control.’)

I had everything I needed for a refresh and even discovered a small fold-out stool hanging on the back of my cabin door just as I was leaving. Coffee, tea, and bottled water are complimentary at the front desk and guests can borrow alarm clocks for wake-up calls. Meals can be ordered and delivered as well.

Here’s a snap of Gatwick Airport’s mascot, Gary Gatwick, checking out the Yotel cabin. You’ll see more (lot’s more) of him during our London visit as he’s my travel partner for the week.

Gatwick to London in less than 30 minutes

It’s always a delight to have an ‘aha’ moment when traveling and learn about a tool or service that you know will change your travel habits.

In the past, I’ve always arrived in London at Heathrow Airport and headed to town via the London Underground, known as the Tube. The new Elizabeth Line seems like its speeds up the travel time, but in the past, the ride from Heathrow to central London could take up to 45 minutes and become very crowded as it got closer to the city, especially during rush hour times.

But traveling from Gatwick Airport to London on the Gatwick Express was far easier and way more pleasant.

The ride from the Gatwick Airport train station to Central London’s Victoria Station on the direct Gatwick Express was a 30-minute breeze.

I liked that this is a train (not a subway) and that the train station is easy to access, with a major upgrade on the way. Trains run every 15 minutes and travelers can use an Oyster smartcard to pay for rides. Prices vary by time and type but are discounted 10% when purchased online or via the app.

Trains from Gatwick also go to the Sussex coasts, for example, Brighton and Eastbourne.

It would have been easy to transfer to underground Tube lines once I arrived at Victoria Station, but my hotel was an easy 10-minute walk and along the way, I passed the Victoria Palace Theatre, where Hamilton is playing.

As I mentioned, Gatwick Airport mascot Gary Gatwick is my tour guide this week, and he received a very enthusiastic welcome at the check-in desk at the St. James’ Court.

Our agenda this week will include a lot of touring in London, Brighton, and West Sussex – all places easily accessible from Gatwick Airport.

So please stay tuned as we catch up on our adventures each day. Have some tips on places we should go? Please add them to the comments.