July 4 weekend: what to expect at the airport

Airlines have stumbled badly over the last two Bank Holiday weekends. Can they deal with 4th of July travelers?

DALLAS — Airlines, which have stumbled badly over the past two bank holidays, face their biggest test yet of whether they can handle large crowds as travelers swarm the country’s airports on July 4 this weekend.

Trouble surfaced well before the weekend, with some disruption caused by thunderstorms slowing air traffic.

American Airlines canceled 8% of its flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, and United Airlines canceled 4% of its schedule over both days, according to FlightAware.

Holidaymakers who choose to drive face their own challenges, including high gas prices. The nationwide average has narrowed to $4.86 a gallon on Thursday since hitting a record $5.02 in mid-June, according to AAA, which expects prices to fall further on rising gasoline stocks.

The Americans drive a little less. Gas demand fell by about 3% last week from the same week in June, according to government figures. In a Quinnipiac University poll in June, 40% of respondents said gas prices have prompted them to change their summer vacation plans.

Air travel in the US is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Since last Saturday, an average of almost 2.3 million people per day have passed through airport security – just 8% fewer than the same days in 2019. If this trend continues into the weekend, it will set pandemic-era flight records.

Airlines may not have enough planes and flights to carry them all, especially when there are cancellations due to weather, crew shortages, or other reasons.

“Airlines are learning the hard way that over-optimism comes at a high cost,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “You are on the edge of a cliff this holiday.”

Schwieterman reckons airlines have little leeway between the number of travelers who will be flying this weekend and the flights they plan to operate – if all goes well. Any disruptions could cause chaos as planes are fully booked – there will be no empty seats on later flights to accommodate stranded travellers.

Airlines were understaffed as they tried to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, to replace those they had encouraged to quit as the pandemic slumped air travel.

Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have slashed their summer schedules to ease the strain on their operations. On average, they use larger aircraft to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. These steps have not been enough so far this summer.

Delta Air Lines took the unusual step this week of warning travelers that there could be trouble over the bank holiday weekend.

The Atlanta-based airline said it expects its biggest crowds since 2019 and that will present “some operational challenges.” It allows passengers who have booked flights between Friday and the Monday holiday to change their flight schedule for free, even if the new flight has a higher price.

“Delta employees are working around the clock to rebuild Delta’s operations while making them as resilient as possible to minimize the impact of disruptions,” the airline said.

Delta had by far the most canceled flights of any US airline during the Memorial Day holiday, when US airlines canceled nearly 2,800 flights, and again this past weekend when it canceled 7% of its flights, according to FlightAware.

Airlines are increasingly trying to blame the delays on the understaffing of the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the country’s airspace and employs air traffic controllers.

“Compared to previous years, the biggest issue this year was air traffic control,” said Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines. “We have taken many steps to avoid central Jacksonville in our planning and we have reduced some flights to accommodate this.”

The FAA has a large facility in Jacksonville, Florida that handles many flights along the east coast. After meeting with airline officials in May, the FAA promised to increase staffing at the center.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian similarly accused the FAA during an online meeting with employees on Wednesday, trade publication Airline Weekly reported. Delta declined to comment.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed back earlier this week when the head of trade group Airlines for America blamed delays on the FAA.

“The majority of cancellations and the majority of delays have nothing to do with air traffic control staffing,” Buttigieg told NBC Nightly News.

Helane Becker, airline analyst at investment firm Cowen, said there were many reasons for the disruptions, including weather, FAA ground stops being too long and flight crews hitting their legal working time limit in one day. Airlines “appear to fail” when it comes to day-to-day operations, and the FAA hasn’t trained enough new air traffic controllers – a process that can take up to four years – to make up for retirements.

“We expect it’s going to be a long, tiring summer for everyone,” she said.

The loudest lawmakers seem to blame airlines primarily for leaving passengers stranded. Some point out that Congress has allocated $54 billion in pandemic aid to the industry.

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged Buttigieg to require airlines to issue refunds for delays longer than one hour and fine them for delays longer than two hours and for scheduling flights that cannot occupy them. Sanders accused airlines of stranding passengers while charging “outrageously high prices”.

Buttigieg has threatened fines if airlines don’t get their operations in order.

Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., this week urged 10 airline CEOs to “take immediate action” to reduce travel disruption. The senators asked for information on how each airline decides which flights to cancel and how many consumer refunds are requested and granted. July 4 weekend: what to expect at the airport

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