By DAVID KOENIG, AP Airlines Writer
DALLAS (AP) — Airlines that have struggled over the past two holidays face their biggest test yet of whether they can handle huge crowds when Fourth of July travelers pack the nation’s airports this weekend.
The problems appeared well before the weekend, with some interruptions caused by thunderstorms that slowed down air traffic.
American Airlines canceled 8% of its flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, and United Airlines removed 4% of its schedule on both days, according to FlightAware.
Holiday revelers planning to drive face their own set of challenges, including high gas prices. The national average has fallen from a record high of $5.02 in mid-June to $4.86 a gallon on Thursday, according to AAA, which expects prices to fall further due to rising gasoline inventories.
Americans are driving a little less. Gas demand last week fell about 3% from the same week last June, according to government figures. In a Quinnipiac University survey conducted in June, 40% of respondents said gas prices had caused 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 a day have passed through airport checkpoints, just 8% less than the same days in 2019. If that trend continues through the weekend, it will be they will set records for flying in the pandemic era.
Airlines may not have enough planes and flights to carry them all, especially if there are cancellations due to weather, crew shortages, or any other reason.
“Airlines are learning the hard way that over-optimism comes at a high price,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “They are on the edge of a precipice this holiday season.”
Schwieterman reckons airlines have little cushion between the number of travelers expected to fly this weekend and the flights they plan to operate, if all goes well. Any disruption could cause chaos because planes are full: there will be no empty seats on later flights to accommodate stranded travelers.
Airlines have run out of staff as they try to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, to replace those they encouraged to quit when the pandemic sent air travel into a tailspin.
Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have cut summer hours to reduce stress on their operations. They are using larger planes on average to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. Those 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 problems over the holiday weekend.
The Atlanta-based airline said it expects the largest crowds since 2019, and this will create “some operational challenges.” It is allowing passengers who booked flights between Friday and Bank Holiday Monday to change their schedule at no cost, even if the new flight comes with a higher fare.
“The people of Delta are working around the clock to rebuild Delta’s operation while making it as resilient as possible to minimize the ripple effect of disruptions,” the airline said.
Delta had by far the most canceled flights of any U.S. airline during the Memorial Day holiday period, when U.S. carriers cut nearly 2,800 flights, and again last weekend, when it canceled 7% of their flights, according to FlightAware.
Airlines are increasingly trying to blame the delays on a lack of staff at the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the country’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers.
“This year compared to previous years, the biggest problem has been air traffic control,” said Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines. “We have taken many steps to avoid downtown Jacksonville in our schedule and have 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 a meeting with airline representatives in May, the FAA promised to increase staffing at the center.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian similarly blamed the FAA during an online meeting with employees on Wednesday, trade publication Airline Weekly reported. Delta declined to comment.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg responded earlier this week when the head of the trade group Airlines for America blamed the FAA for the delays.
“Most of the cancellations and most of the delays have nothing to do with air traffic control personnel,” Buttigieg told “NBC Nightly News.”
Helane Becker, an airline analyst for the investment firm Cowen, said there are many reasons for the outages, including weather, FAA ground stops that go on too long and flight crews reaching their legal limit on working hours in a day. Airlines “seem 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 look forward to a long and grueling summer for everyone,” he said.
The loudest lawmakers seem to mostly blame airlines for stranding passengers. Some point to Congress giving the industry $54 billion in pandemic relief.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged Buttigieg to require airlines to issue refunds for delays longer than an hour and to fine them for delays longer than two hours and for scheduling flights they can’t book. Sanders accused airlines of stranding passengers while charging “outrageously high prices.”
Buttigieg has threatened fines if airlines don’t fix their operations.
Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., this week called on the CEOs of 10 airlines to “take immediate action” to reduce travel disruptions. The senators demanded information on how each airline decides which flights to cancel and the number of consumer refunds requested and granted.
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