DALLAS ( Associated Press) — Airlines that have faltered badly over the past two holidays face the biggest test yet of whether they can handle large crowds when passengers on the Fourth of July arrive at the nation’s airports this weekend. But crowd.
Problems were emerging ahead of the weekend, with some disruptions in thunderstorms that slowed air traffic.
According to FlightAware, American Airlines canceled 8 percent of its flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, and United Airlines canceled 4 percent of its schedule on both days.
The holiday revelers plan to drive face their own set of challenges, including high gasoline prices. The nationwide average has since dropped from a record $5.02 in mid-June to $4.86 a gallon on Thursday, according to AAA, which expects prices to continue to ease due to rising gasoline inventories.
Americans are driving a little less. According to government data, the demand for gas last week was almost 3 per cent lower than the same week last June. In a June Quinnipiac University survey, 40 percent of those surveyed said gas prices prompted them to change their summer vacation plans.
watch: Biden asks Congress to suspend federal gas tax to curb rising prices
Air travel in the US has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Since last Saturday, an average of about 2.3 million people have passed through airport checkpoints in a day – just 8 percent less than on the same day in 2019. If this trend continues over the weekend, records will be set for flying in the pandemic era.
Airlines may not have enough aircraft and flights to carry them all, especially if canceled due to weather, crew shortage or any other reason.
“Airlines are learning the hard way that there is a serious price to over-optimism,” said Joseph Schwetterman, a transportation specialist at DePaul University. “They’re on the edge of a cliff this vacation.”
Schwieterman calculates that airlines have little cushion between the number of passengers flying this weekend and the flights they operate — if all goes well. Any disruption can lead to chaos as the planes are fully booked – there will be no vacant seats on subsequent flights to accommodate the stranded passengers.
Airlines have been caught short of staff as they try to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, who they encouraged to leave when the pandemic decimated air travel.
Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have cut summer schedules to ease the strain on their operations. They are using larger planes on average to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. Those steps haven’t been enough so far this summer.
Delta Air Lines took the unusual step this week, warning passengers that there could be problems over the holiday weekend.
The Atlanta-based airline said it expected the biggest rush since 2019, and it would create “some operational challenges”. It is allowing passengers booked on flights between the Friday and Monday holiday to change their schedule at no cost, even if the new flight comes with higher fares.
“Delta people are working round the clock to rebuild Delta’s operations to make it as resilient as possible to minimize the ripple effects of disruptions,” the airline said.
According to FlightAware, Delta had by far the most number of canceled flights of any US airline over the Memorial Day holiday stretch, when US carriers grounded nearly 2,800 flights, and again last weekend, when it canceled 7 percent of its flights. Did it
Airlines are increasingly trying to blame delays in the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the nation’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers.
“This year versus last year, the biggest issue has been air traffic control,” said Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines. “We’ve taken a lot of steps to avoid the Jacksonville center in our scheduling, and we’ve reduced some flights to accommodate that.”
The FAA has a major facility in Jacksonville, Florida, which handles many flights up and down the East Coast. After meeting with airline representatives in May, the FAA promised to increase staffing at the center.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian blamed 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 the FAA for the delay.
watch: Airlines are facing a shortage of pilots, causing inconvenience to passengers
“Most of the cancellations and most delays have nothing to do with air traffic control staff,” Buttigieg told “NBC Nightly News.”
Helen Baker, an airline analyst at the investment firm Cowen, said there are a number of reasons for the disruptions, including weather, FAA ground stops that last too long, and flight crews hitting the legal limit of working a day. Airlines “seem to have failed” when it comes to daily operations, and the FAA didn’t train enough new air traffic controllers — a process that can take up to four years — to compensate for retirements.
“We expect it to be a long, exhausting summer for everyone,” she said.
The loudest lawmakers blame airlines for most passengers being stranded. Some say Congress gave industry $54 billion for pandemic relief.
Bernie Sanders, I-VT, urged Buttigieg that airlines should issue refunds for delays of more than an hour and fines for delays of more than two hours and for scheduling flights that they employees. can not do. Sanders accused the airlines of implicating passengers by charging an “outrageously high price”.
Buttigieg has threatened fines if the airline does not improve its operations.
Sans Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. asked 10 airline CEOs this week to take “immediate action” to minimize travel disruptions. The senators sought information about how each airline decides which flights to cancel and how many consumer refunds are requested.