DAYTONA BEACH — None of the arriving passengers in line with reservations at the rental car counters at Daytona Beach International Airport on Friday was worried about leaving without a vehicle, but the shortage of rental cars unfolding nationally is still having a ripple effect in Volusia County.
“My wife reserved this one two months ago, but the prices are outrageous now,” said Mark Palmer, 62, of Sturbridge, Mass., his keys and paperwork in hand from Hertz. “We rented a small SUV for $400 for three days. We looked at something bigger, a Chevy Tahoe, but they wanted $800 (for the same amount of time).”
As the economic effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continue to unfold, the latest impact is hitting passengers that are starting to return to the skies and the nation’s roadways amid the rollout of vaccines and the gradual reopening of the hard-hit U.S. travel industry.
After the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a virtual halt a little over a year ago, rental car companies sold off hundreds of thousands of cars that would have otherwise been sitting idle as customers remained isolated and socially distanced at home.
Now, as demand increases, there’s a shortage of vehicles to accommodate customers, a trend that has been particularly evident in warmer, sunny states, such as Florida and Arizona. A quick online search on Friday for vehicles from Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise and Budget locations at Daytona International showed nothing available to rent over the Easter holiday weekend.
And even when cars are available, the price can be more than customers expect.
In Hawaii, for instance, there was news this week that some companies in Honolulu had only large vans available for $500 a day and convertibles for $1,000 a day or more, Hawaii News Now reported. On Maui, another tourist hot spot, the cheapest available rental car was $722 a day.
‘Not just Daytona’
Although customers on Friday didn’t report prices that high in Daytona Beach, Palmer and others occasionally expressed sticker shock.
Employees behind the counter at Daytona International on Friday weren’t authorized to comment for this story, but they acknowledged that Daytona Beach is facing the same issues as other destinations nationally.
“Our state right now is open more than other states,” said one worker, who declined to be identified. “That explains why we’re overwhelmed with people.”
Among those in line was Mike Gelatka, 45, who arrived with his wife and three kids from Chicago on an American Airlines flight. He reserved the family’s Hertz rental car through the travel site kayak.com within the past three or four days, he said.Although he found a vehicle, it wasn’t a perfect fit, Gelatka said.
“We’re paying about $100 a day for a Toyota Corolla,” he said, looking skeptically at his family and their luggage sprawled across a terminal couch. “Hopefully, we’ll all fit.”
Nearby, Mike Miller, 55, of Wichita, Kansas, was waiting in line to pick up a vehicle for his family of four.
“This is the longest line I’ve ever been in for this in Daytona,” he said. Miller encountered similar delays on another recent trip to Las Vegas, he said.
“It’s not just Daytona, it’s the same all over,” said Miller, who owns a telecommunications company. “In Las Vegas, there were no Uber drivers or cabs at the airport. It was an hour wait.”
Miller isn’t surprised about the difficulties that businesses are having readjusting from the pandemic-induced economic downturn of the past year to rebounding interest in travel and other industries.
“There’s no doubt that business, in general, will not catch up immediately,” Miller said. “We live in a society now where when people want something, they want it now and the world doesn’t work that way. It takes a long time to ramp back up.”
For gig-based workers such as Uber drivers, there likely isn’t enough motivation yet to start working again, Miller said.
“They have a stimulus check, so they can wait for it to get busy,” he said. “They don’t want come out to the airport and sit. I get it.”
Strong demand ahead for rental car industry
Hertz Global Holdings, parent of The Hertz Corp. based in Estero, Florida, sold nearly 200,000 of its rental cars, as part of its broader efforts to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While the hundred plus-year-old company is still winding its way through bankruptcy, Hertz has obtained new financing to beef up its fleet again, as it looks to restructure its operations under new ownership.
Hertz spokeswoman Lauren Luster said by email on Friday that the company has seen “a surge in demand for leisure travel in vacation destinations across the industry, particularly around peak travel times like spring break.
“This is encouraging given where the industry was during this time a year ago and we’re happy to help travelers return to the road safely,” she said. ”We are working closely with our automotive partners to add new vehicles to our fleet as quickly as we can while also moving vehicles to the areas with highest demand. We anticipate strong demand for car rental to last several months and throughout the summer.”
Hertz is encouraging customers to book as early as possible, advice that was echoed this week by AAA auto club in Florida.
“The issues are industry-wide, but here in Florida we’re experiencing some additional challenges because Florida is a hot-spot for travel,” said Mark Jenkins, a Tampa-based AAA spokesman.
AAA is reporting that demand is spiking as the summer months approach, with car rentals booked through AAA up by 15% year-to-date compared with the same period in 2020, Jenkins said.
“From our perspective, the solution is that if you plan on renting a car, we recommend that you get a reservation as early as you can,” Jenkins said. “The demand is picking up at a time when the companies have just reduced their fleets in the past year.”
And the pandemic also is figuring into the challenge of rebuilding those fleets in another way.
Automobile manufacturers have been hit hard by a shortage of the semiconductors — or computer chips — needed to build new cars, which has curbed vehicle production at factories worldwide.That’s an issue already familiar to another rental car customer at Daytona’s airport on Friday.
“There is a car shortage,” said Tom Krapohl, 74, an auto dealer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I’m having a hard time getting access to cars to sell. So I can see if they had to clear out the fleet that was sitting idle that it would be hard to build it back up fast.”
Krapohl and his wife, who made reservations weeks ago, had no problem with finding a rental vehicle or with the price they paid.
“We’ve had no issues,” he said.