- Chaos at US airports has become the norm, with cancellations on key weekends occurring four times more often than in 2019.
- US airlines delayed or canceled more than 35,000 flights over the June 16 and Father’s Day weekend.
- Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt told Insider that weather and staffing issues were to blame for the disruptions.
Travelers hoping for a smooth trip after nearly two years of COVID-related disruptions face an airport nightmare: Airlines have canceled flights four times more often on key travel weekends this year compared to 2019, according to an Insider analysis of US Flight Data.
This is creating a chaotic summer travel season as demand reaches levels not seen before the pandemic.
And things will only get worse, according to some airline industry experts and executives. They blame a series of problems conspiring to bottle up the system: shortage of pilots, understaffing in air traffic control centers and bad weather.
“The system no longer folds in the event of a problem,” Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider. “It just slams.”
This year, airlines canceled 5% of all scheduled flights in the United States on May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend – and 26% of flights arrived late. In 2019, over the same weekend, just 1% of flights were canceled on Friday, while 17% of flights were late, according to data from FlightAware.
The situation did not improve last weekend, with the long holidays on June 16. Airlines have canceled more than 35,000 flights, or 6% of the total expected on Thursday and 5% on Friday.
Busy holiday weekends have jammed the system the most so far this year, but flight cancellations have risen to 3% of all scheduled flights in the US in 2022, from 2% in 2019, according to the FlightAware data. Delays are also increasing. Experts say these are the issues to watch out for before heading to the airport this summer:
Harteveldt explained that the “biggest unknown” affecting airlines is the weather, especially with the upcoming hurricane season.
Airlines have been looking for solutions, like allowing planes to fly at lower altitudes below storm systems, according to a CNBC report, but that strategy would increase the amount of fuel they burn — and with the Soaring aircraft prices can put stress on airlines’ bottom line.
Meanwhile, American Airlines has created a program called HEAT that tracks potential disruptions so the carrier can proactively adjust its schedule.
“We can start hours in advance, in some cases five, six hours before what we think the storm is going to be,” US chief operating officer David Seymour told CNBC. “We have to be able to be very nimble and adapt to the scenario as it unfolds.”
Air traffic control personnel
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has blamed air traffic control, or ATC, for the massive disruptions in the United States, saying staff shortages have caused problems at its hub in Newark, New Jersey.
“We’ve had weekends recently where [ATC] is 50% staff, and these controllers are working hard to be successful,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg on Monday. “But, when you’re 50% staff with 89 scheduled operations, and they had us on a perfect day with clear blue skies at 36 operations per hour, it’s a nightmare for customers, for employees and for the airlines.”
To combat problems in places like Florida, Texas and Newark, the FAA launched its “Be ATC” campaign to “hire the next generation of air traffic controllers.” The application process opens June 24 for eligible U.S. citizens, but the window of opportunity is only open until June 27.
Shortage of pilots
Pilot shortages are another factor in delays and cancellations, Harteveldt told Insider. During the pandemic, airlines have lost significant numbers of pilots due to early retirements. They are now struggling to hire, train and retain enough pilots.
Regional carriers have been particularly hard hit because their pilots are scooped up by larger airlines that pay more. However, some wholly-owned U.S. regional carriers, like Envoy and Piedmont, nearly double their pilots’ pay in order to keep them flying.
Possible government intervention
If operations don’t improve, Harteveldt said the federal government has a responsibility to step in to “ensure the industry serves its customers fairly.”
On Saturday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told The Associated Press that there could be consequences for airline flight disruptions, particularly after the cancellation of his own flight from Washington, D.C. to New York.
Buttigieg said he was asking airlines to “stress test” their schedules to make sure they could operate as advertised, the AP reported. That could mean even more cancellations if airlines determine they don’t have enough staff to cover their scheduled flights.
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