Despite an airline industry pledge of a renewed focus on reliability, travelers endured chaos over the holiday weekend, with nearly 5,000 flights canceled and more than 27,000 delayed since Thursday.
Among those caught in the latest round of disruptions: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who ended up driving to New York after his flight from Washington was canceled Friday. It came one day after he met with airline executives about delays during Memorial Day weekend and how carriers are planning for the rest of the summer travel season.
The problems over the Juneteenth and Father’s Day weekend came as the Transportation Security Administration reported more than 2.4 million people were screened at U.S. airports Friday, the most since Thanksgiving weekend. The growth in travel demand is coming as airlines are struggling with staffing shortages and flight schedule reductions, which leave travelers with fewer options for rebooking when problems do arise.
The first signs of trouble arrived 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 delay was 83 minutes.
Airports in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic were initially the hardest hit. The Federal Aviation Administration issued ground stops and ground delays in response to weather and capacity constraints at airports, including Charlotte-Douglas International, a major hub for American Airlines. But as the problems continued through the weekend, the pain was felt in other parts of the country and virtually every U.S. carrier was affected.
Nearly half of JetBlue Airways’ flights were delayed nationwide during the holiday weekend. About 35% of Southwest Airlines flights were delayed, a number that stood at about one-third for American Airlines and 30% for Delta Air Lines.
“A variety of factors continue to impact our operations, including challenges with air traffic control, weather and unscheduled absences in some work groups,” Delta said in a statement. “Canceling a flight is always our last resort, and we sincerely apologize to our customers for the inconvenience to their travel plans.”
American and Southwest declined to comment on the latest delays. JetBlue did not respond to requests for comment.
For airline customers, it was a weekend filled with frustration.
Poli Gupta, who was trying to fly from New York to Florida so her teenage son could participate in the International Geography Bee, booked tickets on three carriers, but each one canceled their flight, leaving the family stranded in New York.
“There was chaos in the airport,” she wrote via Twitter. “And no one to answer questions or help.”
Others found their way around the chaos, renting cars to drive to their destinations.
Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. carriers, declined to comment Monday on the latest spate of delays.
The signs of strain in the system have been evident for weeks. The weekend before Memorial Day, more than 2,900 flights were canceled and more than 18,000, or 26%, were delayed. That same weekend, hundreds of passengers on at least a half-dozen planes were stuck for hours at Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, D.C., after storms prevented flights from arriving and departing.
Then came Memorial Day weekend, which saw more than 2,600 cancellations and nearly 19,000 flight delays over the four day period, according to FlightAware.
Weather has always fueled problems for airlines, but staffing shortages have further hampered carriers’ ability to recover from delays. Several unions representing airline workers have spoken out and held demonstrations to bring attention to the strain on employees.
In a rare open letter to customers, Delta Air Lines pilots, who are in contract negotiations with the carrier, said they shared customers’ frustrations with delays that have upended travel. The union also wrote about the toll the past two years has taken on aviators.
“We have been working on our days off, flying a record amount of overtime to help you get to your destination,” the union wrote. “At the current rate, by this fall, our pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than in the entirety of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date.”
In response to the pilot letter, Delta said it continually evaluates staffing models to ensure that pilot schedules are in line with requirements laid out by the FAA, as well as those outlined in the carrier’s labor agreement.
Delta pilots are among those in several pilot unions, including those at Alaska Airlines, American and Southwest, joining informational pickets focused on working conditions as they seek labor deals with carriers.
The flight problems are bringing renewed scrutiny to the industry’s handling of more than $54 billion in pandemic relief funds. The industry had argued the money would keep front-line workers on the job and make it easier to recover when demand rebounded.
After last year’s bumpy restart and an end-of-year meltdown fueled by weather and infections tied to the omicron variant of the coronavirus, airline executives pledged to improve. Many carriers reduced flight schedules so customers would not be left stranded by last-minute cancellations. Airlines ramped up recruitment and training, offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages for workers at key airports, including at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., where United Airlines offered $5,000 sign-on bonuses to service employees who manage cargo and baggage.
Despite those efforts, the problems have continued.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., earlier this month sent letters to press airlines and the Transportation Department for details on how they intend to ensure that consumers are fairly compensated for flight disruptions.
In response, Airlines for America said the industry is doing its best to avoid cancellations and delays but blamed recent issues on high rates of employee absenteeism and incidents of “ill-timed extreme 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 the demand, while also increasing its usage of underutilized routes. The agency met with industry executives in May.
While the increase in air traffic resources might bring some relief to travelers, weather and staffing shortages are likely to continue to affect other parts of the system.
According to the Transportation Department’s most recent Air Travel Consumer Report in May, the number of complaints about canceled flights rose sharply in March, to 506, compared with 54 for the same month last year. Similarly, 219 people filed complaints about delayed flights, compared with 37 the previous March. Consumer groups say those numbers are low because most travelers don’t file such complaints to the federal government.