Fall travel season: What to expect when it comes to deals, delays

Click to play video: 'What Canadians should expect with air travel this fall'
What Canadians should expect with air travel this fall
WATCH: What Canadians should expect with air travel this fall – Aug 25, 2022

After a summer marked by long lineups, lost baggage and flight disruptions, experts say the fall could see savvy travellers scoop up deals on cheap airfare before the end of the year.

But these travel woes could continue if staffing shortages persist and unseasonably high demand keeps airports busy through the typically slow fall.

Global News spoke to travel and aviation experts about when they expect things to shape up at Canadian airports and how travellers can find the best deals on airfare.

Here’s what they had to say.

What's the situation at airports like now?

Canadian travellers passing through hubs such as Toronto’s Pearson International Airport this summer have been vexed by long lineups to clear customs and security on top of delays or cancellations to their flights.

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Staffing shortages have been identified as a chief cause of these headaches, as the removal of pandemic-related restrictions spurred a rush back to summer travel that overwhelmed airlines and travel services.

Read more: Canada announces hiring blitz as immigration backlog hits 1.3M applicants

“The airlines were very, very anxious to get people to fly,” says John Gradek, head of the aviation management program at McGill University.

“They put a lot of flights up on sale. They sold very quickly and all of a sudden, people showed up. … And guess what? We didn’t have enough people at the airport to handle it.”

Click to play video: 'Canada’s transport minister blames frustrating airport delays on pandemic'
Canada’s transport minister blames frustrating airport delays on pandemic

Air Canada responded to the system shock by slashing its summer flight schedule and most airlines, as well as federal agencies in charge of customs and security at airports, have also been ramping up their staff levels to run flights and speed up processing times.

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Transport Canada said in an update last week that 86 per cent of flights left the country’s top four airports within an hour of their scheduled departure time between August 8 and 14, up from 75 per cent in the first week of July but below the pre-pandemic bar of 92 per cent.

In that same week, 87 per cent of passengers at those four airports passed through security in 15 minutes or less, up from 79 per cent in the first week of July, according to Transport Canada.

Read more: Tips on how to survive summer travel chaos in Canadian airports

There were 42 aircraft held on the tarmac at Pearson for that week in August compared with the peak of 373 planes held in the last week of May.

Air Canada, meanwhile, said in an update last week that it expects to run flights at 79 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity in the third quarter of the year.

The company’s CFO Amos Kazzaz spoke Tuesday at a conference hosted by Raymond James in New York City and said the airline had a “great week” in terms of cancellations, delays and baggage delivery last week and that he expects similar performance for the rest of the year.

Click to play video: 'What can Canadians expect heading into the fall travel season?'
What can Canadians expect heading into the fall travel season?

“We certainly don’t expect to see this level of disruption into 2023. We think it will continue to improve,” he said.

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Gradek says there’s been “marginal progress” from the peak of the issues in June and July to now, but says there’s still a “major gap” between the service Canadians would normally expect and what they’re getting at airports.

“That’s still a question mark in terms of, are the airports really going to be able to flex their muscles and be able to handle the volume that’s expected over Labour Day?”

Will demand drop in the fall?

Experts and stakeholders are divided on whether the fall will see a significant drop in demand, or whether the summer’s travel boom will persist through the typically slower season.

September and October usually mark a downturn in travel volumes as kids return to school and parents to work.

But Tori Gass, a spokesperson with Pearson, says the busy airport isn’t expecting the “typical drop” after Labour Day this year.

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“People are still travelling. There’s still pent-up demand for that. Maybe people put off their summer travel and now they’re going to go in the fall. So that’s something that we’re preparing for,” she tells Global News.

Read more: Air Canada rejects passenger compensation claims, citing staff shortages and safety

Lesley Keyter, who runs The Travel Lady agency in Calgary, Alta., says that while she usually sees a summer slowdown for new bookings, the demand has been “nonstop” through the past few months, especially for people booking “last minute” and hoping to get flights in the coming weeks.

“The demand levels are completely unusual generally for us in the travel industry when it comes to booking travel,” she says.

Travel expert Jennifer Weatherhead told Global News Morning on Wednesday that if Canadians are planning travel in September and October, the safe bet is to continue arriving early to the airport and expect delays.

“As a traveller, I would be prepared for those lines to be there into the fall,” Weatherhead said.

On the side of dampening demand, Gradek notes that in addition to seasonal shifts, the continued pressure of inflation will limit Canadians’ appetite for travel in the fall.

“The one factor that’s going to really see whether we, in fact, get the increased levels of traffic in fall is going to be inflation and the price of travel,” he says. “And it’s not just the airfares, (it’s) hotels, it’s car rentals, all that stuff.”

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What are airlines saying?

Global News reached out to Canadian airlines this week to get their projections for the fall travel season.

A WestJet spokesperson told Global News that demand from the summer is holding strong, though the Calgary-based airline did say a seasonal slowdown is still expected. The company said it expects its flight capacity to still be below pre-pandemic levels as it rebuilds, though it’s putting additional service towards destinations such as Hawaii ahead of the colder months.

Click to play video: 'Travel expert concerned over WestJet expanding winter schedule'
Travel expert concerned over WestJet expanding winter schedule

Air Canada did not provide direct responses to Global News’ inquiry, but the company signalled in its second-quarter earnings call earlier this month that rumblings of a possible economic slowdown are not yet affecting appetite for travel. Fourth quarter bookings are holding steady, the airline said at the time, and are trending in line with 2019 figures.

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Air Transat spokesperson Bernard Cote said in an email to Global News that the travel industry is still facing uncertainty related to staffing shortages, lingering public health measures in the COVID-19 pandemic and the high price of fuel.

While the airline is still seeing demand through the fall, Cote said many travellers are not booking trips far in advance, arguing that consumers are also wary of an economic downturn.

“Travellers’ uncertainty is reflected in the high proportion of last-minute bookings,” he said.

Flair Airlines CEO Stephen Jones told Global News in an email that the carrier is bracing for a busy Thanksgiving weekend, citing demand from travellers who bided their time seeing the long lineups during the summer boom.

He projected, however, that those long queues “peaked” in the summer and said passengers shouldn’t expect delays to that degree through the fall and winter.

“To some extent, that summer crush is in our rear view mirror. Blue skies ahead, I hope,” he wrote.

Fellow low-cost carrier Lynx Air also told Global News that it expects demand to hold up through the fall slowdown, citing the allure of “competitively priced” fares in the domestic market.

Click to play video: 'What’s next for Flair Airlines amid summer travel boom?'
What’s next for Flair Airlines amid summer travel boom?


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Will ticket prices drop this fall?

Gradek says that airfare prices typically drop in the fall to offset the seasonal declines in demand. Airlines push deals for lower airfare in an attempt to “stimulate” demand and competition among providers ends up driving costs lower for passengers, he says.

Weatherhead noted that the emergence of low-cost carriers such as Lynx and Flair Airlines will drive prices even lower this fall. While she typically sees prices drop around 10 per cent in late September in October, she says airfare could get even cheaper this year.

“When we have more options, that’s going to be more competitive in terms of pricing,” she said.

Read more: Flair is Canadian, but ‘not perfect,’ CEO admits. What’s next for the airline?

But again, Keyter notes that ongoing “confusion” in the travel industry could play a role in pricing.
She points to airports such as Heathrow putting passenger caps in place to get service levels back under control as making seats more scarce.

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“When it comes down to it, it’s supply and demand. So if there’s more demand than there are seats, then obviously the airline is going to try and recoup some of their losses and put the prices up,” she tells Global News.

Click to play video: 'Why Canadians can expect airfares to nosedive this fall'
Why Canadians can expect airfares to nosedive this fall

It’s not just airlines, though — Keyter says the tour operators that she works with have also been hit by staffing shortages and are scaling back their offerings. Prices on packages that she would’ve sold pre-pandemic are “somewhat more expensive” now amid the inflationary environment, she says.

Keyter and Weatherhead are in agreement, however, that if you’re looking to travel anytime between Labour Day and the end of the year, now is the time to book.

“It’s a really, really great time to travel and get those deals and also avoid crowds, depending on where you’re going,” Weatherhead told GNM.

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Travellers should expect the biggest discounts on Canadian and U.S. destinations but fewer price cuts on European and Caribbean destinations, she said.

Click to play video: 'The Travel Lady: Comparing all-inclusive to mainstream cruises.'
The Travel Lady: Comparing all-inclusive to mainstream cruises.

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