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Summer vacation is canceled: Inflation, lifeguard shortages, and flight mayhem make a perfect combo for a terrible season

June 28, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC

The pandemic destroyed traditional summer vacation in 2020, when entertainment venues and restaurants shuttered, public and private gatherings became taboo, and travel came more or less to a standstill. 

It seemed at first that summer 2022 could have been a return to normal, as most pandemic-era restrictions have been lifted. But the pandemic’s economic legacy means that this season is an off-kilter one, too. 

As pent-up travel hopes explode into the busiest travel season since 2019, millions of Americans must now contend with inflation cutting into their wallets, a scourge of flight delays and cancellations, and even a nationwide lifeguard shortage. 

Here’s why summer vacation this year is going to be a bummer.

Inflation is at historic highs

In May, the year-over-year prices for consumer goods increased as inflation hit 8.6%, its highest level since 1981, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released earlier this month

While the largest contributors were housing, airfare, and both used and new vehicles, nearly all other sectors saw price increases too, including medical care, recreation, clothes, and food.

That means that celebrations this summer might look a little different as prices remain high, according to a Wells Fargo July Fourth Food Inflation Report. Hosting a party of 10 could cost about 11% more this year, says the report, which breaks down price increases for items at a typical summer gathering. Retail prices for chicken wings are up 38% for example, while ice cream prices are up 6%.

Beyond food, the price of gas has been particularly tough on consumers as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to impact global energy markets. That means that all car travel, from day trips to road trips, will cost significantly more than it did last year. 

With the price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. hovering around $5, President Joe Biden has attempted to take action by calling on Congress last week to enact a three-month pause on the federal gasoline tax

“President Biden understands that a gas tax holiday alone will not, on its own, relieve the run up in costs that we’ve seen,” the White House wrote in a statement. “But the President believes that at this unique moment when the war in Ukraine is imposing costs on American families, Congress should do what it can to provide working families breathing room.”

With a divided House and Senate, it’s unlikely that Congress will ultimately enact the pause. Biden had previously sent a letter to oil executives criticizing them for making record profits while the price of gas surges. 

The Federal Reserve has tried to combat inflation separately through adjustments to its baseline interest rate. Its 75 basis point hike earlier this month was its largest since 1994, and the bank is expected to impose a similar increase after its meeting in July.

Flight cancellations

Generally high costs, however, are only one factor contributing to the woes impacting consumers this summer. For those who have been able to make travel plans, the worst might come once they get to the airport. 

Summer is typically the most expensive time to travel as demand is peaking, and this year prices have risen even more than usual thanks to pent-up demand and rising fuel costs. But it’s not just the cost that’s the problem—more flights have been delayed so far in 2022 than any year in the past decade, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Flights were canceled in droves over busy holiday weekends like Memorial Day and Juneteenth. More people traveled over the latter than during any other weekend this year, according to TSA data, except for the weekend right after. 

The current debacle is the result of several factors, the most central of which is a labor shortage that’s been developing in the industry for years as pilots retire and not enough enter the profession to replace them. Additional workers who maintain air travel operations and equipment are also in short supply.

The labor market for pilots was already tight before the pandemic, according to an annual maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) survey conducted by management consulting firm Oliver Wyman and released in April.

“After reducing workforces during the pandemic, the industry is now scrambling to secure labor to satisfy quickly recovering demand,” the survey reads. 

Depending on how airlines handle flights during the Fourth of July, the Department of Transportation could potentially step in to address consumer protection standards not being met, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with the Associated Press.

“Air travelers should be able to expect reliable service as demand returns to levels not seen since before the pandemic,” he tweeted earlier this month

No lifeguards to be found

You might not even be able to take a trip to the local pool. Many haven’t been able to open because there aren’t enough lifeguards to staff them.

It’s something Bernard Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association (ALA), calls “a true crisis.” 

“This summer is definitely the worst we’ve ever had,” he told Fortune

Historically, the ALA brings in approximately 300,000 new lifeguards every year. But the pandemic immediately halted that influx of trainees. 

“On top of that, the certification is only valid for two years. So the ones that needed to renew their certification two years prior didn’t get a chance,” says Fisher. The result was 600,000 fewer qualified lifeguards nationwide compared with 2019.

Fisher hoped for a rebound last year, but ended up recruiting half as many new lifeguards as usual, exacerbating the shortage even more. 

The pause on certifications during the first year of the pandemic followed by slower-than-usual recruitment has resulted in a staggering lack of workers. “We’re about a million short today,” he says. “Even if we increase wages and incentives and so forth, there’s just no lifeguards out there with their certifications.”

To staff the 309,000 public pools in the U.S., Fisher says, the past two years have set back the ALA’s labor force so much that it’s as if the organization is starting from scratch. 

“We had predicted that come Memorial Day, a third of the pools would either not open or be drastically affected to the point that they’d have to have very restricted hours,” says Fisher. “Not only did that come about, but it’s even gotten worse.”

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