Flying is a nightmare and it won't get better anytime soon

  • Insider has spoken to dozens of travelers who had nightmare experiences flying this year.

  • Issues with weather, delayed flights, and unruly passengers commonly pop up.

  • Experts told Insider there are plenty of factors to blame when it comes to 2023's travel mishaps.

Emma Giantisco and Dylan Marton were stranded in Munich for three days when technical issues with partner airlines deleted their flight reservations more than seven times.

Irene Ortega flew across the globe to search for a missing bag and its $4,000 worth of contents when it was lost on a flight from France to Germany.

A Delta plane full of travelers was forced to abruptly stop when an American Airlines plane crossed the same active runway — one of many near-miss incidents that happened at airports this year.

The list of nightmare travel stories goes on and on. The stories have been the topic at dinner tables; they're impossible to avoid on platforms like TikTok, and articles centered on travels-gone-wrong have dotted publications around the globe.

From climate change to fewer flights taking off, Insider spoke to four aviation experts who shared reasons why it's been a hellish year of travel.

And to pile on more bad news, they said it's not going to get better anytime soon.

"You could say it's a perfect storm that's made air travel so unpleasant or so dreary for many passengers," Joe Schwieterman, an aviation expert at DePaul University, told Insider.

A plane takes off with an air traffic control tower in the foreground.
A plane takes off with an air-traffic control tower in the foreground.Rafael Cordero/Getty Images

Airlines are struggling to fill roles

The aviation industry is experiencing a dire lack of pilots, air-traffic controllers, and mechanics, experts said.

Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot and a spokeswoman for the flight-tracking website FlightAware, said airlines are struggling with a pilot shortage, and it's a battle that will likely continue for years.

The situation is largely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangs said. In 2020, airlines offered pilots early retirement and voluntary buyouts while they paused training new pilots.

Fast-forward to today, and there aren't enough pilots to meet the demand. The problem is even worse among regional carriers, Bangs said, so now there are fewer flights to smaller, domestic destinations.

Helane Becker, an analyst for Cowen who has tracked the shortage, told AZ Central in February that she estimates 10,000 pilots have left the field since the pandemic.

The issue doesn't stop with the pilots. Dean Headley, an aviation expert at Wichita State University and the publisher of the Airline Quality Rating, told Insider a shortage of air-traffic controllers is another problem the industry faces.

"The air-traffic-control system is immensely understaffed," Headley said. "Quite frankly, it's kind of scary in the control towers right now."

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said earlier this year that only 11,000 of the 14,000 air-traffic-controller positions available across the country are filled.

Without air-traffic controllers, airlines have to cut back flights. Additionally, some experts believe a spike in near-miss events between commercial US aircraft is a result of overworked and understaffed control towers.

If a shortage of pilots and controllers wasn't enough, there's another shortage on the ground: mechanics.

"We have a severe shortage of qualified airplane mechanics," Headley said. "They don't have people to maintain the airplanes."

This means that if anything goes wrong — say, something on an airplane door needs fixing — the simple task turns into an hours-long process of waiting for an available mechanic, Headley said.

Bangs said she sees this issue continuing for years as more of the work is outsourced and fewer young people see a career path as a plane mechanic.

"Kids don't even grow up working on cars anymore, so they just don't think about working on airplanes," Bangs said. "And how do you tell someone to go into this career where so much of your work is outsourced?"

Just like with air-traffic controllers and pilots, the consequence of a mechanic shortage is fewer flights.

"We don't have enough people to fully saturate the airspace and maintain the level of flight safety that we need. So you're just going to have to cut flights," Bangs said.

Existing employees aren't happy with working conditions

Many of the people in these positions as pilots, flight attendants, air-traffic controllers, and other aviation roles aren't happy, Charles said. This has led to strikes throughout the year and is a big reason behind some of the travel chaos flyers have experienced.

"Airlines have been held back by union issues, by workers walking out because they're not paid enough," Charles said.

This has affected flights in Europe. In the first half of this year, The New York Times reported that labor strikes caused tens of thousands of flights and trains to be delayed or canceled.

Meanwhile, the US faces similar challenges with its unions. In August, for example, American Airlines flight attendants voted to authorize a strike. If that happens, it would impact hundreds of thousands of travelers, experts estimate.

Travelers at the Hongxiao airport in Shanghai, China.
Travelers at the Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai.Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images

No one was prepared for the boom of travelers this year

Compared to 2019, there aren't enough pilots to fly the planes, enough air-traffic controllers to direct said planes, and mechanics to fix the planes when things go wrong — but there are just as many people who want to fly.

"At the start of 2023, there was huge excitement that this would be a year of seamless travel," Paul Charles, the founder and CEO of the travel consultancy The PC Agency, told Insider.

But it's been far from seamless. One of the biggest reasons why, experts said, is that airlines and airports were not prepared for the volume of travelers this year.

"I don't think people realize right now that everybody and their dog wants to go fly somewhere," Headley said. "A lot of people are flying, and the system that we had coming out of COVID was so reduced and so tamped down that they haven't been able to ramp that back up."

In 2019, 4.5 billion people around the world took scheduled flights. This year, 4.35 billion people are expected to fly — more than 95% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Insider has spoken to travelers who saw that volume firsthand. Giantisco, for example, said when her flight was canceled because of weather, she headed to the Lufthansa customer-service desk at the Munich airport. There, she said she spotted at least 1,000 people waiting in line.

"Mathematically, we're going to be here for 15 hours," Giantisco remembered thinking when she spotted the winding line. Ultimately, the couple ditched the line and opted to call the airline instead.

When that many people fly in a system that can't handle that volume, the result is chaos, Headley said, adding that outdated software has made the situation worse.

The airline's IT systems are not prepared for things to go wrong, but updating and overhauling systems is tough when flying never stops, Headley said.

A birds-eye view of the tarmac at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
A bird's-eye view of the tarmac at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.Michael H/Getty Images

Fewer flights on bigger planes are creating 'sardine-can conditions'

To solve the dilemma of high passenger volume and limited staff, many airlines have started relying on bigger planes and offering fewer flights.

"Even though we're flying about the same amount of passengers, we're doing it on fewer aircraft," Bangs said.

Headley and Schwieterman hypothesize that these circumstances — fewer flights, packed planes, and larger aircraft — are also partly why there have been so many instances of unruly and often violent passengers.

"They're pushing people onto fewer flights, so you have sardine-can conditions," Schwieterman said.

"You put 200 people in a small tube, put them up about 30,000 feet, and things happen," Headley said. "Travelers don't have very much patience, shall we say, and they snap."

Videos and articles about people "snapping" on flights are particularly popular now — whether it's articles about drunk passengers misbehaving or TikTok videos of passengers storming airplanes when flights are delayed.

Travelers have experienced these kinds of situations firsthand. According to the FAA, unruly passenger behavior is up this year compared to 2019. As of September 24, there were 1,529 documented instances of unruly behavior, compared to a total of 1,161 instances in 2019.

Bangs added that fewer flights and packed planes make delays and cancellations harder to navigate — even if the rates haven't drastically changed in the past few years.

According to FlightAware, there's been a cancellation rate of 1.5%, a delay rate of 22.6%, and an average delay of 53 minutes in 2023.

Last year, those figures were virtually the same, as airlines had a cancellation rate of 2.3%, a delay rate of about 21%, and the average delay time was 49 minutes. In 2019, travelers faced a cancellation rate of 1.6%, a delay rate of 16.5%, with an average delay of 49 minutes.

"People expect it to be a really big number, but you've only gone from 2.3% last year to 1.5% this year and this year is actually lower than pre-pandemic," Bangs said about cancellation rates. "I think what there has been is less choice and fewer flights if you do miss a connection."

Bangs added that on top of fewer choices and flights, flights are often sold out, so if you miss a flight, good luck finding another.

That's what happened to Courtney Danser earlier this year. After a delayed flight, she missed her connection home from Dublin to New York City. When she contacted Aer Lingus to reschedule, the next flight available wasn't for two days.

With a job, dog sitter, and responsibilities back home, she told Insider she couldn't wait that long. She spent $1,725 to get home a day earlier with a different airline.

Danser — like so many travelers with delayed or canceled flights — was frustrated.

"Consumers have been caught out by a range of unpredictable issues," Charles said. "That has made it very stressful for so many people traveling. And not just emotional stress, but financial stress, too."

A plane lands during California's heat wave at the San Francisco International Airport.
A plane lands at the San Francisco International Airport during a California heat wave.Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Extreme weather events have also resulted in challenges

Charles said that weather-related events account for some of the problems as severe weather often leads to delayed and canceled flights.

As scientists have predicted for years, one result of the climate crisis is an increase in both the frequency and intensity of severe weather. Floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes will become more common as will extreme temperature fluctuations.

These aren't new challenges for the aviation industry, but they will become more frequent, Headley said.

Already this year, there have been an array of weather challenges that resulted in thousands of delayed and canceled flights, leading to ripple effects around the world, since flights are overbooked and airlines are understaffed.

Earlier this year, record-breaking heat impacted air travel. Airlines relied on portable power systems and ice carts to keep their airplanes and people cool. In July, thunderstorms along the East Coast impacted around 48,000 United Airlines flights. Meanwhile, when parts of Germany flooded this summer, hundreds of passengers were stuck on planes, and dozens were stranded when flights were canceled.

As Insider previously reported, there's also been an uptick in clear-air turbulence connected to the climate crisis. Turbulence has sent travelers to the hospital, and experts say it's only going to get worse as we face more extreme weather events.

A woman stands in front of flight information boards that display canceled flights at Schiphol Airport in The Netherlands.
A woman stands in front of information boards showing canceled flights at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport in The Netherlands.KOEN VAN WEEL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Travelers should get used to the chaos, experts say

The experts Insider spoke to agreed that the travel nightmare isn't going away anytime soon.

As players in the industry spend money and time training pilots, air-traffic controllers, and mechanics, people in those roles are retiring each year. Bangs said it will take immense efforts to fill the gaps.

Charles also predicts gaps in technology will grow and unions will continue to strike for better wages.

"In the economic era we're in, unions will continue to be forceful as they fight for high wages. I think IT systems will continue to fall over and melt down until billions more is spent urgently on improving systems to make travel more seamless. And really tragically, the climate issues are not going away," Charles said.

"In the short term, I think we are going to have to get used to this," Charles added.

Headley agreed but noted that the industry has gone through similar situations before.

"We've seen this happen in cycles before," he said. "All the predictions I heard, it was going to take anywhere from two to three years for that to get back to where we can handle it decently. So we're about halfway through something like that."

And every industry expert agreed that the airlines are trying — they just aren't able to succeed in the conditions they currently face.

"The fact is that most of the airlines are trying to do the best they can for their customer," Headley said. "The customer has to be a little bit more patient than they have in the past. Things are just not quite as smooth as they used to be."

Regardless, people will keep traveling despite the chaos.

"Exploring has been in our human DNA for hundreds and hundreds of years," Charles said. "That is not going to go away."

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