Travelers have long been encouraged to “pack patience” and be flexible when flying, but thousands of delays and cancellations this year are testing their mettle. Pandemic-era problems that hobbled the national air system as it struggled to regain footing last summer have not abated, despite pledges from airline executives of a renewed focus on reliability.
The problems persist despite billions in pandemic relief funds that U.S. airlines received to keep workers on the job. When Americans were ready to fly again, the expectation was that airlines would be ready for them. But with another surge in air travel expected for the July 4 holiday and airlines scrambling to find pilots and other workers, passengers and analysts alike are worried the system is poised for more summer meltdowns.
The weekend of Father’s Day and Juneteenth, thousands of travelers were left fuming after more than 3,000 flights were canceled and more than 19,000 were delayed. Even Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, fresh off a virtual meeting with airline executives the previous day to press for more accountability, was not spared. He drove to New York after his flight from Washington was canceled.
Hundreds more U.S. flights were canceled this past weekend, including more than 800 on Sunday, a day with nearly 7,000 delays. Airlines say they are doing their best to retool operations, arguing there are no models for navigating a global pandemic. They have stepped up hiring, in some cases offering $10,000 signing bonuses to lure replacements for the 50,000 workers who left at the height of the pandemic.
In a letter to Buttigieg ahead of July 4, Nicholas Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, reiterated the industry’s commitment to delivering a “safe and on-time product not only over the holiday weekend but throughout the summer.” But he also laid some blame for recent problems on the national air traffic control system, noting that one carrier estimated air traffic control issues “were a factor in at least one-third of recent cancellations.”
The Federal Aviation Administration pushed back on those assertions, saying the airline industry is aware of steps the FAA has taken to address concerns. “After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief to help save the airlines from mass layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve to have their expectations met,” the agency said in a statement. “Airlines are well aware of these measures, as their representatives sit next to FAA staff at our Command Center and participate in calls with our personnel every other hour.”
Delays and cancellations are costly for carriers. Spirit Airlines lost $50 million after delays last July and August. Meanwhile, executives at Southwest Airlines said the carrier lost $75 million in revenue as it tried to manage through operational issues in October.
But consumer advocates, lawmakers and travelers are asking why two years after airlines began receiving infusions of cash, the system remains in disarray.
“This is really an unacceptable situation,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit group focused on enforcement of antitrust regulations. “They got that big bailout with grants and loans and there was only one caveat: You need to make sure your staffing stays up. So what did airlines do? They found a loophole and they managed to encourage people to leave, which is exactly what Congress asked them not to do.”
Despite pent-up demand, carriers have cut hundreds of flights from their future schedules as they seek to balance demand with staffing. Last week, United Airlines said it would cut 50 daily flights from its busy Newark hub. Last month, Delta Air Lines announced it would cut 100 daily flights between July 1 and Aug. 7 to improve reliability. The cuts are intended to reduce the number of last-minute cancellations, but also mean that when disruptions do occur, there are fewer options to accommodate travelers.
Poli Gupta and her family were scheduled to fly from New York to Orlando earlier this month so her teenage son, Shubham, could compete in an international geography competition he had won a year earlier. A few hours before their JetBlue Airways flight was to leave John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Gupta’s phone chimed with an alert. The flight was canceled.
The family rushed to the airport hoping to rebook, only to encounter hundreds of others desperate to do the same. “The airport was a mess,” Gupta said. “Once I entered, that should have been my cue to start driving.” The family bought tickets on two other carriers and spent the day shuttling between JFK and LaGuardia in hopes that at least one flight would depart. Neither did.
JetBlue eventually said it could get the family to Orlando, but there was a catch. They would have to drive to Washington to get on a flight, arriving as the qualifying rounds were over, making Shubham ineligible to compete in the finals.
Gupta got a refund from JetBlue, but is still trying to recoup other expenses. By her calculations, she estimates she is out $1,000 for a trip that never happened. In a statement, JetBlue blamed the flight issues on “lengthy air traffic control delay programs that resulted from weather” and other air traffic control “staffing issues.”
“I wish that airlines would just be more responsive to people,” Gupta said. As she navigated her way through multiple airports that day, she said she thought of people she met who were trying to get to funeral and graduations. “These are experiences where it is important to be there.”
An analysis of flight schedule data by Jeff Pelletier, the managing director of Airline Data, showed the effect reductions have on available airline seats at six U.S. airports: Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall, Denver International, Dallas-Fort Worth International, George Bush Intercontinental in Houston and O’Hare International in Chicago. Most serve as hubs for major carriers such as Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
The analysis showed there are about 947,000 fewer seats available on flights from those airports in July and August than six weeks earlier. In Atlanta, a Delta hub, there are about 600,000 fewer seats available during those two months.
Comparing the available seats with screening data from Transportation Security Administration checkpoints offers one indication of how full flights are and how difficult it can be for airlines to accommodate passengers when flights are canceled. Each person screened by TSA would need an average of 1.85 seats, according to Pelletier, a calculation that considers travelers who come directly to the airport and those connecting through.
At Hartsfield-Jackson, the nation’s busiest airport, roughly 77,000 to 80,000 people are screened daily at TSA checkpoints, meaning the airport would need about 160,000 seats, on average, to accommodate travelers. According to Pelletier’s calculations, there are an average of 157,000 to 180,000 seats each day, illustrating how close the margins can be.
Airlines “are squeezing their schedules as lean as they can to accommodate as many passengers as they can,” Pelletier said. “But they are still playing with the math and it is not always going to be right.”
Fewer flights also mean customers are paying more. According to data collected for the travel industry by Adobe Analytics, the price for a domestic airline ticket has increased 47 percent since January. Airlines are rerouting passengers when they can, but that sometimes means flying into an airport miles away from their original destination.
Emily Futcher and her husband were scheduled to fly from Raleigh to Destin, Fla., earlier this month for an overdue family reunion. Their connecting flight in Charlotte was canceled and the next available flight was not scheduled to depart until two days before they were slated to fly home. American gave them options: They could fly to Destin the next day but would have to connect through Boston, or they could fly to Panama City, Fla., a roughly 130-mile round trip from Destin. They opted for Panama City, with her in-laws volunteering to pick them up.
Futcher requested reimbursement for their expenses. In response, American deposited 7,500 miles into her frequent flier account. “It is jarring to interact with a company that you’ve given so much money to and put your trust in to get you from Point A to Point B,” she said. “The fact that they just put us through a terrible experience and then threw a couple of points at us, I really don’t want to use them again, but there aren’t many other options, so that makes it really tough.”
Airline troubles are also taking a toll on front-line workers, who often bear the brunt of passenger anger when flights are delayed or canceled. “The worst part of my job is having to say ‘I’m sorry ma’am, but your flight is canceled,’” said Dennis Tajer, a pilot and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines.
The end of the federal mask mandate has eased onboard tensions, said Paul Hartshorn Jr., a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents those who fly for American Airlines, but he said flight attendants are increasingly out of position or unable to work flights because of limits on how many hours they can be on the job.
The strains are also felt in the ranks of pilots, where a shortage of trained aviators has prompted several carriers to cut service to small and midsize markets. American recently announced it will stop flying to Dubuque in Iowa, Islip and Ithaca in New York, and Toledo, citing a pilot shortage. That is on top of cuts it and other carriers made when pandemic relief funds expired, meaning they were no longer required to offer service to certain communities.
American’s pilots union has released videos on YouTube blaming management for the disruptions. One recent video included the tagline: “Passengers deserve better. And so do investors.”
“I’ve seen bouts of this, but I’ve never seen” American “so consistently overpromising and underdelivering as they are now,” Tajer said. “What they learned from last summer, they can get away with it, because there are no consequences other than the damage to the brand and demoralizing to the employees.”
In a statement, American said June has been difficult for the entire industry, with weather and air traffic control issues affecting some its busiest hubs. The carrier added that it is staffed to support its scheduled operations, with 12,000 more employees than last summer.
Delta pilots, who are in contract negotiations with the carrier, in a rare open letter to customers said by this fall they pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined. Southwest pilots recently held an informational picket at Dallas Love Field Airport.
According to the Transportation Department, airlines reported 33 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights in April, compared to seven in March. Carriers can face millions in fines in such instances. Some fear delays and cancellations will continue through the fall. “Right now, we are going to have to hold on and hope things get better,” said Charles Leocha, president of the nonprofit Travelers United.
Despite the delays and cancellations on her way back to Los Angeles, Peebles praised airline employees, who she said went above and beyond to help customers. But there were not enough of them, she said, and for that she blames airline executives.
“Nobody gets a bonus this year because as far as I’m concerned, they have dropped the ball,” she said. “This is not the fault of the pandemic, and I don’t want any more of my tax dollars going to them because they’re making gross profits from bag check fees and ancillary items. They are not upholding their end of the deal.”