Summer air travel: More than 4,000 flights canceled as of Thursday

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COMMENTARY

Travelers endured a difficult weekend at the nation’s airports as storms disrupted air travel, causing more than 4,000 flight cancellations and tens of thousands more delays as of Thursday.

The problems began Thursday as severe weather swept through the Northeast, where the Federal Aviation Administration issued ground stops at several airports. Bad weather continued on Friday, causing another round of cancellations.

Those delays spread throughout the nation’s aviation system and affected nearly all U.S. carriers. The latest round of concerns comes as airlines are already under scrutiny for their performance this summer, a period marked by increased demand for air travel during a pandemic that has seen airlines shed thousands of workers.

Some of the industry’s worst-performing days in recent months have surrounded the holidays — with a significant number of cancellations over Memorial Day and Father’s Day/Juneteenth weekends. While staff shortages have been a constant factor in this year’s delays, the weather seemed to be the main culprit.

Friday was the busiest travel day of late, with more than 1,500 flights canceled and more than 7,600 delayed, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware.com. The day saw more than half of Southwest Airlines’ scheduled arrivals delayed by nearly an hour on average. New York-based JetBlue Airways faced similar problems; half of its Friday arrivals were delayed an average of 96 minutes. JetBlue did not respond to requests for comment.

Several carriers, including American Airlines and United Airlines, issued travel waivers that allow customers more flexibility to rebook their flights.

Airlines tried to deflect blame, but they are the biggest cause of delays

United officials said storms and strong winds affected operations at the carrier’s hubs in Newark and Chicago, disruptions that spread across its network. During the peak of the weekend disruptions, United customers were delayed more than 90 minutes on average. Southwest and Delta Air Lines officials also said the severe weather affected their operations.

By Sunday, the number of cancellations had dropped significantly, although delays remained a problem. The pace resumed on Monday, when more than 4,200 delays were reported.

This year has seen more cancellations and delays than all of 2021, according to FlightAware. US airlines canceled 2.7 percent of flights between Jan. 1 and Aug. 7 this year, compared with 1.5 percent in 2021. The number of delayed arrivals has risen to 20.7 percent this year, compared with 15.6 in 2021.

The latest delays come as airlines have taken steps in recent months to deal with surging demand for air travel after it nearly ground to a halt at the start of the pandemic. Despite the higher number of passengers, the transport companies have reduced the number of flights they operate. These reduced schedules mean fewer options for passengers when problems arise.

The country’s top transport official, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, had to make alternative arrangements after two of his flights were canceled earlier this summer.

Flight cancellations are stressing weary travelers

Frustrations over the industry’s operational issues have spilled over into public opinion this summer, with airlines blaming some of the problems on a lack of air traffic controllers. While some disruptions this year have been related to weather and staffing issues at major air traffic control centers, federal data show many are the fault of US carriers.

According to last month’s data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, air carriers were live responsible for about 41 percent of delays through May, a figure equal to 2021 but higher than before the pandemic. Late-arriving planes—another problem largely attributed to the airlines—accounted for an additional 37 percent of delays.

The data showed that roughly 17 percent of the delays were related to problems with the nation’s airspace, including congestion, bad weather or staffing at air traffic control facilities. That figure was the lowest since officials began tracking data in 2004. Extreme weather is its category, accounting for about 5 percent of delays.

Was your flight delayed? Tell us what happened.

The problems have prompted lawmakers and consumer advocates to call for more protections for passengers.

Last week, the Transportation Department proposed protections that include requiring airlines to issue vouchers without expiration dates to passengers infected with the coronavirus or other contagious diseases who decide to cancel their travel plans. DOT officials say that without protection, would-be passengers face a choice between traveling and endangering the health of other passengers or financial loss.

The public has 90 days to comment on the proposal. The Department of Transportation will then consider comments before finalizing the rules.

“When Americans buy an airline ticket, they need to get to their destination safely, reliably and affordably,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “This new proposed rule would protect travelers’ rights and help them get the timely refunds they deserve from airlines.”

Also last week, a group of House and Senate Democrats introduced legislation that would build on existing federal reimbursement rules. The bill would give passengers the right to a refund if they cancel their tickets at least 48 hours before departure.

The number of delays and cancellations on Tuesday appeared to be on the decline, with only a handful of flights scrapped.



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