The not-so-great escape: Why travel is so fraught this summer

  • Travelers get ready for their flights in Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport Thursday. As passenger numbers inch toward pre-pandemic norms, there are some growing pains for the industry.

      Travelers get ready for their flights in Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport Thursday. As passenger numbers inch toward pre-pandemic norms, there are some growing pains for the industry. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Travelers get ready for their flights in Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport Thursday. As passenger numbers inch toward pre-pandemic norms, there are some growing pains for the industry.

      Travelers get ready for their flights in Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport Thursday. As passenger numbers inch toward pre-pandemic norms, there are some growing pains for the industry. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Ellen Mauer enjoys a trip to Puerto Vallarta with friends Lori and Sam Grabarski, front, husband, Tim, and son, Nick, this March. The vacation was fun, but the journey was fraught because the group's direct flight home was canceled.

    Ellen Mauer enjoys a trip to Puerto Vallarta with friends Lori and Sam Grabarski, front, husband, Tim, and son, Nick, this March. The vacation was fun, but the journey was fraught because the group's direct flight home was canceled. Courtesy of Ellen Mauer

 
 
Updated 8/1/2022 9:23 AM

There were four of us waiting at the auto rental in Downers Grove and just one overworked clerk.

I flinched when she told a potential customer no vehicles were available, but -- miraculously -- my intermediate SUV was there as promised. Just one hitch before starting the two-day driving trip to Maine: The tire pressure was low, the clerk said. I'd have to take it to Firestone.

 

So I went and serviced my $572 rental, and felt grateful. Because a car with dysfunctional tires is better than no car at all ... right?

Across America, travelers eager to escape after months of COVID-19 restrictions are finding unprecedented flight cancellations, sky-high gas prices, auto shortages and an upending of conventions.

Take Ellen Mauer. One year ago, the Libertyville resident paid American Airlines extra for direct-flight tickets to Puerto Vallarta, her traditional March break getaway with friends and family.

But in January, American downgraded Mauer's reservation, adding a layover in Dallas on the return trip with barely enough time to make connections.

There was no refund and no other direct flights available, she said. A few months later, when direct flights were advertised, the airline "refused to move us because those were selling for thousands of dollars more."

Mauer was told transaction disclaimers give American "the ability and the right at any time to change your direct flight ... and you can't recoup your money."

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"This is a real scam," Mauer said. "We took our trip and raced to get through the airport. Barely made it, and only because there was a delay in the flight (home)."

American Airlines did not return a request for comment.

After tanking in 2020, air traffic was at 87% of 2019 levels as of Friday, according to federal data. The surge comes as U.S. airlines are grappling with staffing shortages, and the combination has caused thousands of cancellations this summer. Carriers can absorb cancellation rates of 3%, but those numbers averaged 4% in late June for American, Delta, Southwest and United airlines, DePaul University Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development researchers reported.

"Air travel won't anytime soon snap back to be as predictable as only a few years ago, but airlines have a huge incentive to make things better," transportation Professor Joseph Schwieterman said.

"Carriers are walking away from massive amounts of revenue due to canceled and late flights. Plus, they are paying for planes and flight crews even when they are stuck on the ground."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As for rental cars, rates are $40 more a day on average than in 2019, AAA found.

"The rental-car situation is indeed horrible and unlikely to improve much in the near term," Consumer Guide Automotive Publisher Tom Appel said. The Palatine resident is still reeling from a $1,100 estimate for a minivan to move his daughter to grad school in Colorado. He opted for a $500 mid-size crossover instead.

"Because of the chip shortage/supply-chain problem, carmakers are limited as to the number of vehicles they can build and are thus focusing on retail sales, which are more profitable than rental sales," Appel said. The situation "has left the American market short almost 8 million cars and trucks," he said, adding the rental car shortfall isn't expected to ease until 2024.

As for gas, AAA recorded a $5.04 average for a gallon of regular Friday in the Chicago metro area. It's astronomical compared to $3.56 a year ago but cheaper than $5.22 on July 22.

"Gas prices are still under additional downward pressure due to a pullback in gasoline demand," AAA's Molly Hart said. "This past Monday readings from the Energy Information Administration put gasoline demand at 5% to 10% below year-ago levels.

"It still remains a volatile market, and we have seen the gas prices rebound over the last several months. With Labor Day approaching, we may see a slight uptick in prices at the pump."

Gridlock alert

Expect lane closures and delays on the exit ramp from northbound I-290 to Biesterfield Road starting Monday as IDOT crews rebuild and widen the exit. Work will finish in spring 2023.

• Got a travel story to share? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

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