- Chaos at US airports has become the norm, with cancelations on key weekends happening four times as often when compared to 2019.
- US airlines delayed or canceled more than 35,000 flights over the Juneteenth and Father’s Day weekend.
- Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt told Insider that weather and staffing issues are driving the disruptions.
Travelers hoping for a smooth journey after nearly two years of COVID disruptions are being confronted with a nightmare at the airport: Airlines have canceled flights four times as often on key travel weekends this year when compared to 2019, according to an Insider analysis of US flight data.
It’s making for a chaotic summer travel season as demand surges toward levels last seen before the pandemic.
And things are only going to get worse, some experts and airline industry leaders say. They blame a series of issues conspiring to bottle up the system: pilot shortages, a lack of staff at air traffic control centers, and bad weather.
“The system doesn’t bend anymore when there’s a problem,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group told Insider. “It just snaps.”
This year, airlines canceled 5% of all US-scheduled flights on May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend — and 26% of flights arrived late. In 2019 over the same weekend, only 1% of flights were canceled on that Friday, while 17% of flights were late, according to FlightAware data.
The situation did not improve over the past weekend, with the long Juneteenth holiday. Airlines canceled more than 35,000 flights — 6% of the total scheduled on Thursday and 5% on Friday.
Busy holiday weekends have jammed up the system most so far this year, but flight cancelations have risen to 3% of all US-scheduled flights in 2022 compared to 2% in 2019, according to FlightAware data. Delays are on the rise, too. Experts say these are the issues to watch before you head to the airport this summer:
Harteveldt explained the “biggest unknown” affecting airlines is the weather, especially with the upcoming hurricane season.
Airlines have been searching for solutions, like allowing aircraft to fly at lower altitudes below storm systems, according to a report from CNBC, but that strategy would increase the amount of fuel they burn — and with jet prices skyrocketing, that 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 in advance of what we believe the storm is going to be,” American chief operating officer David Seymour told CNBC. “We’ve got to be able to be very nimble and adaptive to the scenario as it plays out.”
Air traffic control staffing
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has blamed air traffic control, or ATC, for the mass disruptions in the US, saying staffing shortages have caused issues at its Newark, New Jersey hub.
“We’ve had weekends recently where [ATC] is at 50% staffing, and those controllers are working their tails off to be successful,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg on Monday. “But, when you’re at 50% staff with 89 operations scheduled, and they had us on a perfect clear blue sky day at 36 operations per hour, it’s a nightmare for customers, for employees, and the airlines.”
To combat the issues in places like Florida, Texas, and Newark, the FAA has launched its “Be ATC” campaign to “hire the next generation of air traffic controllers.” The application process opens on June 24 to eligible US citizens, but the window of opportunity is only open through June 27.
The pilot shortage is another factor driving delays and cancellations, Harteveldt told Insider. During the pandemic, airlines lost a significant number of pilots due to early retirement. They’re now struggling to hire, train, and retain enough pilots.
Regional carriers have been particularly affected because their pilots are being scooped up by bigger airlines that pay more. However, some American wholly-owned regional carriers, like Envoy and Piedmont, are nearly doubling their pilot salaries as a way to keep them flying.
Possible government intervention
If operations don’t get better, Harteveldt said that the federal government has a responsibility to step in to “make sure the industry is serving its customers fairly.”
On Saturday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the Associated Press that there may be consequences for airline flight disruptions, particularly after his own flight from Washington, DC to New York was canceled on Friday.
Buttigieg said he’s asking airlines to “stress-test” their schedules to make sure they can operate as advertised, the AP reported. That could mean even more cancelations if airlines determine they don’t have enough staff to cover their scheduled flights.