US airlines have sent ominous signals to July 4 holiday weekend travellers with a spate of summer cancellations and delays as they struggle to scale up operations to meet surging air travel demand.
“Some operational challenges are expected this holiday weekend,” Delta Air Lines said this week.
Domestic carriers cancelled almost 23,000 flights from May 25 to June 27, or 2.6 per cent of their total rosters, up from 1.9 per cent during the same period in 2019, when an additional 300,000 trips were scheduled, according to flight tracker FlightAware.
Another 201,000 flights were delayed, or 23 per cent of all scheduled, with an average delay time of 51 minutes during that period.
The July 4 weekend is expected to be the busiest travel weekend since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chicago Department of Aviation is forecasting more than 1.6mn travellers through its two airports, O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport — an increase in traffic of 17 per cent and 37 per over last year, respectively.
Should high cancellation rates continue over the July 4 weekend, it would be the third consecutive holiday weekend to be thrown into disarray.
Over Memorial day weekend, the unofficial start to the summer travel season, roughly 3,000 flights were cancelled by US airlines as they cited staffing issues, inclement weather, and air traffic control snarls. Roughly one in five flights were delayed.
The Juneteenth weekend brought even more chaos: 5,400 flights were cancelled, or 4.1 per cent of the roster, and over 34,500 were delayed, or 26.2 per cent of scheduled flights.
US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke to airline chief executives this month to address the integrity of the summer flying schedule. “I let them know that this is a moment where we are really counting on them to deliver reliably for the travelling public”, Buttigieg told NBC News.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders called on Buttigieg to take action to reduce cancellations and delays by imposing hefty fines on carriers — from $15,000 per passenger for domestic flights delayed by two hours to $55,000 per passenger for some cancellations.
“During the pandemic, when air travel came to a near halt, US taxpayers came to the rescue and gave $54bn to the airline industry”, he added.
The summer season always brings potential challenges in the form of bad weather, particularly thunderstorms, and the highest demand of the year. But after two years of the coronavirus pandemic, some airlines are facing record summer demand as consumers eschew inflation fears to take vacations.
Domestic airfares were up almost 60 per cent during the first week of June compared with the first quarter of the year, according to Raymond James analysts, but airlines remained bullish on bookings.
Meanwhile, carriers do not have the staff to ensure smooth operations, especially pilots. Multiple airlines have pared summer rosters in response.
“This phase of our recovery has been the most difficult. We’ve never had to bring the airline back at this speed before,” Delta’s chief of operations John Laughter said.
Delta pilots represented by the Air Line Pilots Association said the Atlanta-based carrier “is scheduling more flights than it has the staff to operate”. Similar remarks have been made by American Airlines’ pilots union.
“It gives us no pleasure to tell management: ‘We told you so'”, said Delta ALPA Master Executive Council chair Jason Ambrosi, referring to operational disruptions.
Pilots have picketed US airports ahead of the holiday in protest over stalled pay contracts, although they have said they will not walk off the job.
Nicholas Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, an industry lobbying group, has blamed the federal regulator for the chaos, writing in a recent letter to Buttigieg that air traffic control staffing issues “have led to traffic restrictions”.
The surge of air travel demand is expected to continue after the US stopped requiring proof of a negative Covid-19 test to enter the country, which could further stress carrier networks. United Airlines reported an immediate rise in international bookings searches.
US consumer spending on foreign airlines, a proxy for international travel activity, was already 9 per cent higher than 2019 levels at the beginning of June, according to the Bank of America Institute.