Airlines endured a better-than-expected Fourth of July holiday weekend, but staffing shortages and other root causes of flight disruptions continue to loom large over the busy summer travel season.
U.S. carriers canceled roughly 1,400 flights between Friday and Monday, according to data from flight analytics firm masFlight. The number is down from Memorial Day weekend and last month’s Juneteenth holiday, when U.S. airlines canceled more than 3,400 flights over four days.
The data indicates that Independence Day wasn’t a total meltdown as some predicted.
But still, thousands of flights were canceled in the week leading up to the holiday, and around 1 in 5 travelers experienced delays at the airport during the long weekend.
“The numbers appear to have improved relative to Memorial Day but we’re still seeing elevated cancellations, and some stories we’re hearing from passengers are just unacceptable in terms of their consumer experience,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an on-air interview with CNBC.
Over the last calendar month, U.S. airlines have canceled more than 18,000 flights, or roughly 3 percent of scheduled trips, including nearly 1,000 flights in the three days after the holiday weekend, according to masFlight.
Carriers blame a shortage of workers, particularly pilots, in addition to poor weather and scheduling errors.
During the height of the pandemic, the spread of COVID-19 stifled demand for flights, and airlines offered early retirements to tens of thousands of workers and furloughed even more.
That’s made it difficult to accommodate the influx of travelers this summer as some Americans take their first real vacation since the start of the pandemic.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it screened nearly 2.5 million travelers on July 1, up from 2.2 million on the same day in 2019. That’s the highest single-day figure since February 2020.
“We are back to pre-pandemic checkpoint volume,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein tweeted.
Carriers reduced their flight schedules by about 15 percent from June to August in an effort to lessen the number of potential disruptions and mitigate the impact of higher fuel costs. The recent cancellations suggest that their plans were still too ambitious.
Experts say that pilot staffing will remain an issue for at least two years because there aren’t enough pilots currently undergoing training to plug the expected shortfall. Airlines have responded by launching their own training programs and flight schools, and boosting pilot pay.
There’s also a shortage of pilot instructors leading to a bottleneck of trainees, according to Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots.
American Airlines experienced a scheduling error over the weekend that allowed pilots to drop some of their July flights, leading to over 12,000 flights without pilots. The Texas-based carrier fixed the issue and agreed to triple pilot pay for holidays and other busy stretches.
Pilots are hopeful that they can work with American Airlines CEO Robert Isom to address other issues, such as aggressive scheduling that they say leads to overbooked flights and fatigued pilots.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that Isom is finally listening to us,” Tajer said. “Now we’re going to see if he can motivate his management team to deliver on his continued vision to restore the reliability of our airline.”
Chaos at airports has sparked criticism from Capitol Hill and Biden administration officials who note that Congress gave $54 billion to airlines to ensure that they would be ready for a travel recovery.
Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to airline executives demanding data on cancellations, delays and customer refunds, while stating that staffing shortages are “no excuse” for disruptions. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote a separate letter calling on Buttigieg to fine airlines for scheduling flights they cannot properly staff.
“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,” a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson said in a statement.
Airlines for America, which represents U.S. carriers, told lawmakers last year that the federal aid covered 77 percent of U.S. airlines’ payroll costs, saving hundreds of thousands of jobs but still forcing carriers to offer early retirements and furloughs. The trade group said that airlines had to make more cuts when COVID-19 relief briefly lapsed in late 2020.
Airline executives and FAA officials met last week to discuss solutions to flight disruptions, indicating that they’re eager to work together even as both sides trade blame for delays and cancellations.
“We appreciate the enhanced coordination with the FAA to address a range of shared challenges as we worked collaboratively to minimize disruptions and provide safe, efficient travel,” Hannah Walden, communications manager at Airlines for America, said in an email.
Buttigieg on Thursday unveiled $1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to 85 airports across the country to improve terminals. He said that the funding could help improve traveler flow at airports by upgrading baggage handling or ticket counters.
Industry representatives have pointed out that carriers in other countries are having an even tougher time dealing with the summer travel boom.
European airlines have canceled tens of thousands of flights in recent months amid severe staffing shortages. The situation is particularly dire in the Netherlands, where the nation’s largest airport reduced flight capacity by around 13,500 seats per day due to a lack of security workers and baggage handlers.
The largest European airlines made huge job cuts in the early months of the pandemic and have acknowledged that they are struggling to find their replacements.
“Did we go too far in cutting costs here and there, under the pressure of the more than 10 billion euros in pandemic-related losses? Certainly, that too,” Carsten Spohr, CEO of German carrier Lufthansa, which cut nearly one-third of its workforce in 2020, told employees in a recent memo apologizing for staffing issues.
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