The troubles on June 16 and Father’s Day weekend came as the Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 2.4 million people were screened at US airports on Friday, the most since Thanksgiving weekend. Travel demand is growing as airlines struggle with staffing shortages and schedule cuts, leaving travelers with fewer options to rebook in the event of problems.
Buttigieg meets with airline executives amid fresh round of delays and cancellations
The first signs of trouble came Thursday when nearly 1,700 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled and more than 7,700 were delayed, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. The average length of the delays was 83 minutes.
Airports in the north-east and mid-Atlantic were initially hardest hit. The Federal Aviation Administration issued ground stops and ground delays in response to weather and capacity restrictions at airports, including Charlotte Douglas International, a key hub for American Airlines. But as the problems continued throughout the weekend, the pain was felt in other parts of the country as well, with virtually every US airline being impacted.
Almost half of JetBlue Airways flights were delayed nationwide over the bank holiday weekend. About 35 percent of Southwest Airlines flights were delayed, a number that accounted for about a third for American Airlines and 30 percent for Delta Air Lines.
“A variety of factors continue to impact our operations, including air traffic control challenges, weather and unplanned absences in some work groups,” Delta said in a statement. “Flight cancellation is always our last resort and we sincerely apologize to our customers for the inconvenience with their travel plans.”
American and Southwest declined to comment on the delays. JetBlue did not respond to requests for comment.
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It’s been a weekend of frustration for airline customers.
Poli Gupta, who was trying to fly from New York to Florida so her teenage son could attend the International Geography Bee, booked tickets with three airlines, but each canceled their flight, leaving the family stranded in New York.
“There was chaos at the airport,” she wrote via Twitter. “And no one to answer questions or help.”
Others found their way through the chaos, renting cars to go to their destinations.
Airlines for America, which represents major US airlines, declined to comment Monday on the latest spate of delays.
The signs of stress in the system have been evident for weeks. Over the weekend leading up to Memorial Day, more than 2,900 flights were canceled and more than 18,000, or 26 percent, delayed. That same weekend, hundreds of passengers on at least half a dozen planes were stranded for hours at Reagan National Airport after storms prevented flights from arriving or departing.
Passengers exited planes at Reagan National for hours after storms
Then came Memorial Day weekend, which, according to FlightAware, saw more than 2,600 flight cancellations and nearly 19,000 flight delays over the four days.
Weather has always been a problem for airlines, but staffing shortages have further hampered airlines’ ability to recover from delays. Several unions representing airline workers have spoken out and held demonstrations to draw attention to the strain on workers.
In a rare open letter to customers, Delta Air Lines pilots, who are in negotiations with the airline, said they share customer frustration at delays that have upended travel. The union also wrote about the toll aviators have taken over the past two years.
“We worked on our days off and put in a record number of hours of overtime to help you meet your target,” the union wrote. “At the current rate, by this fall in 2022, our pilots will have flown more overtime than all of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date.”
In response to the pilots’ letter, Delta said it is continually evaluating staffing models to ensure pilots’ schedules are consistent with FAA requirements as well as those in the airline’s employment contract.
Delta pilots belong to several pilot unions, including those of Alaska Airlines, American and Southwest, who join information strikes focused on labor conditions as they seek airline labor deals.
The flight problems put the industry’s handling of more than $54 billion in aid money for the pandemic under renewed scrutiny. The industry had argued that the money would keep front-line workers on the job and make it easier to recover when demand picks up again.
After last year’s bumpy restart and a year-end meltdown fueled by weather and infections linked to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, airline executives vowed to improve. Many airlines have reduced flight schedules so customers aren’t stranded by last-minute cancellations. Airlines increased recruitment and training, offered signing bonuses and increased wages for workers at major airports, including Dulles International, where United Airlines offered $5,000 signing bonuses to apron workers who manage cargo and baggage.
East Coast storms delay Memorial Day weekend travel plans
Despite these efforts, problems persist.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) this month sent letters to press airlines and the Department of Transportation for details on how they plan to ensure consumers are properly compensated for flight disruptions.
In response, Airlines for America said the industry was doing its best to avoid cancellations and delays, but blamed the recent problems on high employee absenteeism and incidents of “extreme, mistimed weather.” It also pointed to staffing issues at air traffic control facilities, particularly in Florida, where travel volumes at some airports have exceeded pre-pandemic levels.
The FAA said it is working with airlines to shift air traffic control staff to meet demand while increasing use of underutilized routes. The agency met with industry leaders in May.
While increasing air travel resources could bring some relief to travelers, weather and staff shortages will likely continue to affect other parts of the system.
According to the Department of Transportation’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report, released in May, the number of complaints about canceled flights rose sharply to 506 in March, up from 54 in the same month last year. Also 219 people filed complaints about delayed flights, compared to 37 in March earlier. Consumer groups say those numbers are low because most travelers don’t file such complaints with the federal government.