After pushing through storms and some flight cancellations over the busy Fourth of July weekend, airlines and their passengers face the challenge of navigating through the rest of a busy summer.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and industry observers warned about staffing issues and flight disruptions ahead of Independence Day. Delta ended up canceling dozens of flights a day throughout the weekend, as did other major carriers.
But last weekend’s flight cancellations still weren’t as severe as during Memorial Day weekend and some other nightmare travel days so far this summer.
On Friday, the busiest day of the July Fourth holiday weekend, Delta canceled 117 flights, or 3.9% of scheduled flights according to FlightAware.com. On Saturday, it canceled 81 flights, followed by 54 cancellations on Sunday and 41 cancellations on Monday. About half a dozen Delta flights were canceled Tuesday by early afternoon. The airline issued a statement saying it managed “ongoing challenges throughout the holiday weekend.”
U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., on Tuesday wrote a letter to industry lobbying group Airlines for America expressing “concerns over the increased flight cancellations and delays passengers continue to experience across the United States.” They called for details on what airlines are doing to fill open positions and to offer services for passengers affected by last-minute delays and canceled flights, and asked what the industry plans to learn from its holiday operational challenges.
“Recently, too many travelers have been left frustrated and scrambling to rearrange their schedules in response to widespread air travel difficulties,” Williams and Larsen wrote.
After Shamika Minisee’s Delta flight from Atlanta last Friday night was canceled and rescheduled multiple times, she said she learned she would have to wait until Sunday for a flight home to Huntsville. Instead, her husband drove several hours to pick her up and take her home on Saturday.
When “you’re away from home, the last thing you want is for your flight to be rescheduled four different times,” Minisee said. Her checked baggage was flown to Huntsville, so she had to stay overnight in Atlanta without her toothbrush or change of clothes.
“I had to buy all that,” she said. “The price of gas and food, as well as the price of the inconvenience. … It’s hard to put a price on that.”
As travel rebounds sharply from declines earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of travelers like Minisee are trying to take to the skies again. But many are finding themselves disappointed and aggravated, as the airline industry struggles to get enough workers to handle the traffic.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines and Delta have had the most cancellations in the U.S. airline industry in recent weeks, according to FlightAware.com data. Over Memorial Day weekend, Delta had more than 250 flight cancellations in one day, or more than 10% of its flights. On some of its worst days in June, American Airlines had more than 300 flight cancellations.
The problems affect travelers like Brian Massey, who was scheduled to fly from Birmingham to Atlanta for a trip to Washington, D.C. last week, only to find his flight to Atlanta was canceled with no other options on that route for the rest of the day.
“I had to cancel the entire trip,” Massey said. He also lost the value of an Airbnb booking, which was non-refundable.
Massey said he hopes the problems the airlines are facing are just “related to the summer demand and short staff, and they’ll work it out in the next few weeks.”
Delta in a statement Tuesday said “we sincerely apologize to our customers for any disruption to their travel plans.”
Delta pilots conducted informational picketing in Atlanta and at major airports around the country last week, raising concerns about flight cancellations and pushing for a new labor contract.
For Delta, it’s a sharp decline in performance compared with recent years, when the airline often tallied up the number of “perfect” days it operated with zero flight cancellations. Now, it’s been months since Delta has had a day with no cancellations.
When thunderstorms hit Delta’s biggest hub in Atlanta, flight schedules get disrupted, crews get displaced and the airline turns to reserve crews to staff flights. But there’s little slack in the system because Delta has struggled to ramp its staff back up after cutbacks during the pandemic.
Delta pilots have been working record amounts of overtime to help the airline operate its schedule, according to their union.
“We have warned management about the lack of buffers in the system for months, and we’re frustrated when we see our customers’ travel plans disrupted,” said Delta pilots union head Jason Ambrosi in a written statement Tuesday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been pushing for airlines to improve their reliability this summer. He was among those whose flight was canceled Friday night at the start of the July Fourth weekend.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, also wrote a letter to Buttigieg last week pushing him to impose fines on airlines for scheduling flights they cannot properly staff and for flights delayed more than two hours.
In an attempt to reduce last-minute cancellations and get ahead of the staffing problems, Delta said it would reduce its flight schedule by 100 flights a day in July and early August, amounting to about 2% of its flights.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a memo to frequent fliers last week pledged that the airline is “on a path towards a steady recovery,” hiring thousands of workers and making changes to get more flights out on time.
“Things won’t change overnight,” Bastian wrote. “The environment we’re navigating today is unlike anything we’ve ever faced,” he added. He said the airline is working “throughout the summer and beyond” in efforts to restore its reliability.
TSA national checkpoint travel numbers
Friday, July 1: 2,490,490
Saturday, July 2: 2,160,542
Sunday, July 3: 2,094.381
Monday, July 4: 2,081,119
U.S. airline flight cancellations
Friday, July 1: 464
Saturday, July 2: 555
Sunday, July 3: 230
Monday, July 4: 186
Source: Courtesy of FlightAware