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Airlines are cutting flight schedules. You can expect longer lines and higher fares

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The busy summer travel season is underway. And already, there are some bumps in the road or in this case, the sky. Airlines cancelled thousands of flights over Memorial Day weekend and again the next week. Now they're trimming their summer flight schedules despite soaring demand, and that's leading to higher fares. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: At airports right now, it's almost as if the pandemic never happened. The long security lines, the crowded gates, the jam-packed planes - they're all back. Oh, and so, too, are the high airfares and extra fees.

HAYLEY BERG: Airfare is incredibly high for domestic travel this summer.

SCHAPER: Hayley Berg is lead economist for the travel search and booking app Hopper.

BERG: We're seeing this week airfares averaging about $394 roundtrip for domestic flight per ticket.

SCHAPER: That's about 50% higher than last summer and nearly 25% higher than airfares during the prepandemic summer of 2019. Berg says driving up fares in part is the price of jet fuel, which has doubled. Rising labor costs and inflation are contributing, too. But...

BERG: As of right now, these higher airfares are not deterring travelers, and that's both domestically and abroad. Consumers are willing to pay the higher airfares to get away this summer.

SCHAPER: Airlines report that flight bookings are near and in some cases above summer of 2019 levels. But travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group says the number of flights being offered are still 10% below pre-COVID levels.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: And that means less choice. And less choice means fewer seats. In addition, some airlines aren't operating as many wide-body jets to all of their destinations, so that also means fewer seats.

SCHAPER: And Harteveldt says that puts air travelers in a tough spot this summer.

HARTEVELDT: It's going to be a "Hunger Games"-like battle to get the fares you want, the flights you want. And the concern I have is that there's absolutely no wiggle room, no flex room in the industry if and when something goes wrong. And it's summertime. Something goes wrong on a regular basis.

SCHAPER: To try to minimize flight delays and cancellations, Harteveldt says, airlines are trimming their flight schedules, especially to smaller cities because they still don't have enough employees to meet demand.

HARTEVELDT: Because of the staffing shortage that exists, especially with pilots, airlines have scaled back the number of flights they're going to operate this summer in order to have a buffer of extra pilots, extra flight attendants and extra airplanes ready in case you get a bad storm or something else that disrupts their operation.

SCHAPER: Already this season, airlines have been caught stretched too thin when bad weather hits.

KATHLEEN BANGS: Yeah, we saw - on Memorial Day weekend, we saw over 7,000 cancellations.

SCHAPER: Kathleen Bangs of the flight tracking firm FlightAware says Delta had the most cancellations in recent weeks, but other airlines have had similar operational meltdowns over the past year, including American, Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue and Spirit. Remember all the cancellations over the Christmas and New Year's holidays and the periodic air travel chaos last summer and fall? Bangs says so far this year, U.S. airlines have canceled about 3% of all of their flights.

BANGS: Anything over about 1% before COVID we thought was was a pretty high number if you saw anything over 1%. So this has been high this year. And it is a good thing that the airlines have scaled back some because there is such a surge in demand.

SCHAPER: To avoid being stranded by canceled flights this summer, travel experts advise planning ahead and even looking at weather forecasts for your travel days to see if storms are likely. And in the words of one expert, expect that something will go wrong. And then you could be thrilled if it doesn't. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.