In November of last year, college sophomore Jordyn Smith boarded a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, where she would catch a connecting flight headed for Gainesville.
She placed her luggage in the overhead bin, took her seat and clicked her seatbelt across her lap. She had traveled home for Thanksgiving, and now she was returning to the University of Florida campus for final exams.
Jordyn heard a voice crackle through the cabin intercom.
“Attention passengers aboard this flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. Your flight has been delayed 30 minutes.”
Smith only had a 40-minute layover. After the first delay, she knew she would miss her connecting flight. What she didn’t anticipate was hearing the same announcement three more times, without explanation.
“This experience has made it abundantly clear I cannot fly when I have a time crunch or anything like that,” she said.
Smith isn’t alone. She is one of many travelers who are opting to book direct flights rather than those with mid-flight connections to avoid delays. In Gainesville, that looks like passengers opting to depart from Jacksonville, Tampa or Orlando airports rather than Gainesville Regional Airport.
Across the country, the spike in the omicron variant of COVID-19 has led to staffing shortages and supply chain issues. These factors, combined with winter weather extremities, have resulted in flight delays, cancellations and reduced airport foot traffic.
Erin Porter, Gainesville Regional Airport’s manager of marketing and public relations, said these inconveniences are a burden to all airports, no matter their size or location.
“The first thing we noticed were fewer cars in the parking lot,” Porter said.
This countrywide issue puts a burden on both airport employees and travelers.
While January is notoriously slow for the Gainesville Regional Airport, the number of travelers is lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to Porter.
The domino effect of airport delays and cancellations
Brad Carman, the owner of Door to Door Transportation, runs an Uber-like car service in Gainesville. The majority of his customers are UF students who often request rides to and from Jacksonville and Orlando airports.
Since November, his ride requests to the Gainesville Regional Airport have decreased while his ride requests to Jacksonville and Orlando have increased. The current state of the airlines is still affecting his business, he said.
“I’ve had to be very flexible with scheduling rides to make sure there’s enough time to expect for delays,” he said. “I can’t have a ride immediately following another. It’s been causing my business, as busy as I have been, to be less busy and efficient than it could be.”
Carman owns several businesses, but if his ride service was his sole income, he said he would be in trouble.
Since the recent spike in the omicron variant, Carman has seen a record high in cancellations. During his busiest season last year, the week of Thanksgiving, he had 20 cancellations; before frequent airport delays, it was a rarity to see a customer cancel, he said.
“People have been missing flights because they get canceled, and if they look to rebook with me at a different time,” he said, “I have other rides booked or other conflicts, so it is actually costing me business.”
Over the past year, Carman has raised his prices roughly $10 to combat the higher than usual gas and oil change prices. He wants his business to be efficient and affordable for customers, despite the current economic hurdles and complex scheduling he is facing.
“The fuel prices, the prices of oil changes have gone up, just like the price of milk, that it’s making it difficult to stay afloat in a business like this,” he said.
Ongoing supply chain and staff shortages
Carli Schell, a junior at UF, primarily relies on Jacksonville International Airport to travel between Gainesville and her hometown in Maryland. Usually, flights are cheaper, and she prefers direct flights.
“The current staffing shortages affecting air travel is definitely a factor pushing me to book flights out of airports where I can fly directly,” she said. “Why put myself in a position to have a higher likelihood of missing a connection if I don’t have to?”
Last fall, Schell flew out of Gainesville Regional Airport, and her flight was delayed, she said. She almost missed her connection.
“For the next year and a half, I will rely on the Jacksonville airport to get me to and from school,” Schell said. “The convenience of the Gainesville airport isn’t worth the potential headaches it can bring.”
Gainesville Regional Airport spokesperson Erin Porter said if airport personnel have COVID-19, or just a cold, they’re unable to fly or work for five days, in compliance with the most recent CDC guidance.
“It is a snowball effect,” Porter said. “It is not just one singular airline. It is all of them. And everyone is kind of equally affected.”
Gainesville Regional Airport’s facility operations have not been directly affected by staffing shortages. Its biggest burden right now is the supply chain issues, Porter said.
Supply chain issues have complicated facility operations beyond the daily inbound and outbound flights. In particular, the Gainesville Regional Airport is looking to buy another vehicle for the tarmac to haul passengers’ luggage.
“There’s a truck for the grounds that we want to buy, and we can’t get it for who knows how many months, but we need it,” she said. “We have to make do with what we have. Is it the end of the world? No, but it is not what we planned for.”
In addition to their luggage, Porter requests travelers bring something else on board: a sense of understanding.
“I would hope people can understand that you can’t blame this on anyone,” Porter said. “They call it an ‘act of God’ when things like delays or cancellations happen.”