Fourth of July travel surge puts airlines — and passengers — to the test

Business

Travelers at LaGuardia Airport in New York on June 30, 2022.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

The Fourth of July holiday weekend will put airlines to the test after a messy spring angered travelers and drew sharp criticism from Washington.

Already this year, the rate of flight cancellations and delays in June is higher than before the pandemic as a result of bad weather and staffing shortages. And airlines and federal officials have been scrambling to ease frustrations ahead of the busy holiday weekend.

This week, Delta said travelers can change flights for free, without paying a difference in fare, if they can travel outside of the busy July 1-4 weekend, as late as July 8. JetBlue Airways launched attendance bonuses to flight attendants this spring to ensure solid staffing. American Airlines regional airline Envoy is offering pilots triple pay to pick up extra shifts throughout July.

And carriers including Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines recently trimmed their schedules to give themselves more wiggle room.

The moves come as passenger counts near pre-pandemic levels, while fares have soared. About 2.6 million people could depart U.S. airports each day of the weekend, according to estimates from the fare-tracker Hopper.

Travelers have largely stomached the higher fares after being cooped up for two years in the pandemic. That’s been a boon to carriers that are more than making up for a surge in fuel costs. But flying has been a headache for many passengers.

Nearly 176,000 flights arrived at least 15 minutes late between June 1 and June 29. That represents more than 23% of scheduled flights, according to flight-tracker FlightAware. And more than 20,000 − nearly 3% − were cancelled out.

That’s up from 20% of flights being delayed and 2% being cancelled in the same period in 2019.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have sparred over who’s to blame. Airlines have blamed the disruptions on bad weather, their own staffing shortages and staffing problems at the government’s air traffic control.

The FAA, for its part, has called out moves by airlines to let go of tens of thousands of workers through buyouts, despite getting $54 billion in taxpayer payroll aid during the pandemic as a part of a rescue package that prohibited layoffs.

Political pressure on airlines is rising. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly urged airlines to ensure that they are ready after the recent spate of cancellations and delays, including one that affected a flight the secretary planned to take.

Lawmakers have also pushed for more scrutiny of airlines. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) this week said airlines should be fined $55,000 per passenger for cancelling flights they cannot staff.

On Thursday, the FAA’s acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other top agency officials held a call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency’s own use of overtime to staff its facilities, traffic and routing plans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call was in addition to regular planning meetings with airlines.

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