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The number of Americans who will fly this summer could eclipse the prepandemic high from 2019. That would be great news for airlines, but it could also cause a backlash against the industry if it fails to keep up with demand and delays or cancels thousands of flights.
The recovery from the pandemic has been punctuated by several major travel meltdowns, stranding millions of travelers and angering lawmakers and regulators. In recent months, the Transportation Department has proposed requiring greater transparency around airline fees and requiring companies to more fully compensate people whose flights are delayed or canceled.
A major misstep could increase political pressure on lawmakers and regulators to take a harder line against airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs air traffic and has also had notable failures in recent years.
“A lot of focus is going to be on the airlines, and I don’t think they can afford to have a summer like they did last year,” said William J. McGee, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation in the airline business. “This pattern they had last year of canceling flights at the last minute, in many cases due to crew shortages, that’s just unacceptable. They’re not going to be able to do that again, I don’t think, not without some serious repercussions.”
Industry executives and F.A.A. officials say they made changes after recent disruptions and meltdowns that should make air travel less chaotic and more pleasant this summer than in recent years.
Why have airlines struggled so much?
Nearly every major airline and the air traffic control system have suffered a meltdown at some point during the recovery from the pandemic.
Early on, when coronavirus vaccinations were still being developed and tested and restrictions prevented people from traveling, carriers encouraged thousands of employees to take buyouts or retire early even though the federal government had provided airlines with billions of dollars to pay employee salaries. When air travel quickly rebounded, airlines, like every other business, struggled to hire and train employees, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers.
Even when companies got a hold on hiring, airlines remained particularly susceptible to disruptions. During the holidays leading into 2022, a resurgent coronavirus sickened huge numbers of crew members, compounding problems caused by bad weather and resulting in thousands of flight cancellations nationwide.
Another problem: The aviation system uses technology and ways of doing business that were developed years or decades ago and are showing their age. Around Christmas last year, Southwest Airlines struggled to overcome bad storms because of insufficient equipment and inadequate crew scheduling software and practices, stranding millions of travelers. Weeks later, the F.A.A. briefly stopped all flights from taking off nationwide after a contractor deleted a file in a dated pilot alerting system.
The industry has put in place changes to minimize disruptions, including hiring more staff, reducing the number of flights and adding more resilience to their networks. They appear to be helping: Through early May, weather was by far the leading cause of flight delays, and cancellations were limited compared with 2019.
What will the summer look like?
So far this year, air travel has returned to prepandemic levels, with more than 2.1 million people passing through airport checkpoints daily, as many as during the same period in 2019, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Airport traffic has already broken pandemic records on several days this May, according to the T.S.A.
But traffic could soon exceed even those 2019 volumes. This Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer travel season, is expected to be the third busiest in more than two decades, with 5.4 percent more people planning to fly than in the same weekend before the pandemic, according to the AAA travel club.
Dozens of major airports are also expected to see double-digit growth in traffic this summer, from last summer, according to Airlines for America, a trade association. That list includes airports serving big cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle and Denver. It also includes six hub airports for United Airlines, five for Delta Air Lines and four for American Airlines.
What is the F.A.A. doing?
To keep flights running smoothly this summer, the F.A.A. is relaxing rules at some busy airports.
Those rules require airlines to use or lose takeoff and landing slots that they’ve been assigned. But by easing that requirement from mid-May to mid-September, the F.A.A. hopes to encourage carriers to fly fewer, larger planes without fear of losing their spots. The policy applies to the three major airports serving New York City, as well as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The F.A.A. said it had relaxed the rules partly because of a staffing shortfall at an air traffic control center that serves the New York airports and employs only about half its target number of air traffic controllers. Without the change, the F.A.A. said, flight delays this summer could increase up to 45 percent from last summer. The problems could reverberate nationwide because many flights connect in New York.
The F.A.A. has also said it has taken steps to better accommodate flights around space launches, which have increased, particularly in Florida but also in California and Texas. In early May, the agency announced that it had opened up 169 new routes, primarily at high altitudes and along the East Coast, to ease congestion.
What are airlines doing?
Some airlines say they’ve prepared for summer by planning to use bigger planes, hiring more staff and more closely watching for early signs of disruptions.
At the F.A.A.’s request, several major airlines have agreed to fly less, but with bigger planes, at some busy airports. United, for example, said it planned to have 30 fewer daily departures out of its Newark hub than in the summer of 2019. But because it’s using larger planes, the airline said, it will offer 5 percent more seats in the New York area.
The airline, for example, has cut the number of round-trip flights between Newark and St. Louis to three a day this July from four a day last year. But because it swapped out one of the regional jets that it typically uses for a larger Airbus A319, United is offering 18 percent more seats on that route than last year.
“We very, very, very much want to fly a larger schedule,” said Patrick Quayle, a senior vice president for global network planning and alliances at United. “But what we care about most is running a reliable operation.”
Other airlines are also planning to use larger planes on certain routes, a practice that has accelerated in recent years and is known as “upgauging.” Airlines have scheduled about 5 percent more flights within the United States this summer than last summer, and about 10 percent more seats will be available, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider. Compared with the summer of 2019, airlines this summer will fly 10 percent fewer flights yet offer 3 percent more seats.
The industry has also aggressively recruited and trained new employees. As of March, passenger airlines employed the equivalent of nearly 487,000 full-time employees, the most since October 2001, according to an analysis of federal data by Airlines for America, the industry group. Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, recently said the airline had finished a hiring spree.
“The hiring rates that we’re at now are just normal hiring rates for normal attrition, not of the massive bulge that we needed to go through to restore the business,” Mr. Bastian told Wall Street analysts on a conference call in April. “And so not only are we able to reduce the focus on getting out and hiring people, we can take the people that have been doing the training and put them back in the business.”
Airlines have also tried to be smarter about spotting disruptions before they result in mass delays and cancellations. After its winter holiday debacle, Southwest said it would better use real-time data to keep tabs on the health of its network. American said it had also put into place a system called Heat, which would allow it to quickly delay and cancel flights in response to mounting problems while minimizing the number of customers affected.
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Niraj Chokshi covers the business of transportation, with a focus on airlines. @nirajc
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Try to Head Off Summer Travel Meltdowns. Having angered travelers and lawmakers, airline executives and aviation officials said they were reducing flights, hiring staff and making other changes to avoid disruptions this summer.Are flight delays the airlines fault? ›
Not all airline cancellations and delays are considered the airline's fault. And airlines aren't required to provide flight delay compensation when a delay or cancellation isn't considered within their control.What is the issue with American Airlines? ›
The biggest issue facing American is the utilization of its assets, Isom said. The carrier has about 150 aircraft parked, including 100 regional jets, because of a pilot shortage.Why do airlines cancel flights for weather? ›
No airline wants to risk its passengers, its crew, or its equipment when runway conditions are dangerous. If crews determine conditions are too dangerous to safely proceed, they'll delay or cancel the flight. It's better to be safe than take an unnecessary risk.Is Memorial Day a busy day for flying? ›
Flight delays and cancellations may ruin the busy summer air travel season Memorial Day weekend kicks off the busy summer air travel season and this may be the busiest ever. But some worry it could be another summer of delays and cancellations after a "pretty rocky" 2022.Why is air travel so bad right now? ›
Lost baggage, overbooked flights, outdated equipment, hidden fees, and disorganized staffing have fliers at their wits' end; consumer complaints about airline service have risen by 300% from pre-pandemic levels. And while these snafus cost passengers, they often have little recourse.How long can an airline delay a flight without compensation? ›
If you are connecting on a different airline, airlines are not required to provide compensation if a delay on the first flight causes you to miss your connection. However, if your first flight is delayed for more than 3 hours, you may be entitled to compensation from the airline that caused the delay.Can flights be cancelled due to temperature? ›
Flights may be canceled due to wind, precipitation, fog or low visibility, lightning, low clouds, or storms. Outside temperature does not always affect flights. Pilots make the final determination as to whether a flight will occur or whether one in progress will be diverted to another airport.Can I get compensation if my flight is delayed due to bad weather? ›
It might have been your airline's fault if there was a technical problem, or they overbooked. You're unlikely to get compensation if the delay was because of something outside the airline's control, like bad weather or a security risk.How bad do winds have to be to cancel flights? ›
With this in mind, horizontal winds (also known as “crosswinds”) in excess of 30-35 kts (about 34-40 mph) are generally prohibitive of take-off and landing.
|Best & Worst Days and Times to Fly: Summary|
|✅ BEST||❌ WORST|
|Tuesday and Wednesday||Monday, Friday, and Sunday|
|Early morning and late night||Late afternoon and mid-morning|
|Off-season and shoulder season||Holidays, spring break, the summer, and large-scale events|
The truth is that the mid-day flights on Tuesday and Wednesday are less popular, and therefore both less crowded and less expensive! We always recommend a mid-week flight for just these reasons. So, if you can't stomach the idea of waking up at 3am to catch a less crowded flight, you can still avoid the worst crowds.What is the most expensive day of the week to fly? ›
According to Google, fares are less expensive if you fly in the middle of the week, rather than on the weekend. Over the past five years, flights that took off Monday to Wednesday were, on average, 12% to 20% cheaper than weekend flights. Sundays are a particularly expensive day to depart, Google said.What cities are being cancelled by American Airlines? ›
"In response to the regional pilot shortage affecting the airline industry and soft demand, American Airlines has made the difficult decision to end service in Columbus, Georgia (CSG), Del Rio, Texas (DRT) and Long Beach, California (LGB) this spring," American Airlines wrote. AMERICAN AIRLINES GROUP INC.Why are airlines still struggling? ›
Jet fuel, consumer demand and airline staffing shortages are all to blame. But there are other issues in play as well.Why is American Airlines dropping? ›
American Airlines (AA) dropped three more routes this month, adding to a series of cuts pinned on pilot shortages and low demand over the past year. Staff shortages have been in play since airlines took off again as vaccines diminished threats from COVID variants.How safe is flying 2023? ›
Your chances of being involved in a fatal plane crash are incredibly small - around 1 in 11 million, according to Harvard researchers. While your odds of being in a plane accident are about 1 in 1.2 million, survivability rates are about 95.7% - so the odds are with you no matter how you look at it.How can we make air travel more bearable right now? ›
- Take An Early Morning Flight. ...
- Go For Comfortable Seats. ...
- Plan and Engage Yourself. ...
- Decide Between A Direct Flight and Layovers. ...
- Pack Light. ...
- Opt For Lounge Access. ...
- Others Wear Comfortable Clothes.
In North America, with an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements, the shortage reemerges quickly and is projected to reach over 12,000 pilots by 2023 — 13 percent of total demand.How much do airlines have to pay for bumping passengers? ›
The amount an airline has to pay involuntarily bumped passengers depends on the price of their ticket and the amount of time they'll be delayed in getting to their destination, according to federal regulations. For domestic flights, passengers delayed by 1-2 hours are entitled to 200% of their one-way fare.
U.S. Tarmac Delay Laws
After a tarmac delay of two hours, passengers must be provided with food, water, operational lavatories, and medical care (medical care only if needed). After a tarmac delay of three hours in the U.S., passengers must be given the option to deplane.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), there are tarmac delay rules that U.S. airlines must follow: Carriers are not allowed to hold a domestic flight on the tarmac for more than three hours and an international flight for more than four hours, barring a couple of exceptions (like if the pilot deems ...Do planes fly lower in summer? ›
As air heats up, it expands and becomes less dense, or thinner, just like air at higher altitudes. So on a hot summer day, a plane's engine is taking in air that is less dense, with less oxygen. That produces less lift, and the plane has to travel faster and farther to take off and fly, like it is at a higher altitude.Do flights still travel in negative weather? ›
Since planes are designed to fly in this temperature, cold weather on the ground does not, by itself, inhibit flight. However, cold weather can impact activities on the ground. While less of an issue for take-off, an icy or wet ground can extremely inhibit a plane's ability for landing safely.Do airlines pay for hotel if flight Cancelled? ›
Travelers can either get complimentary hotel accommodations and ground transportation or reimbursements for those unexpected expenses if the next available flight isn't until the next day.How much of a flight delay to get compensation? ›
30% of the ticket price for flights of 1,500 km or less or. 50% of the ticket price for intra-EU flights of more than 1,500 km and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 km. 75% of the price for all flights greater than 3,500 km.How do I claim compensation from airlines? ›
If you believe you have the right to claim compensation or reimbursement, you should contact your airline or airport directly. Compensation is not automatic, and you will need to contact your airline to make a claim. Many airlines and airports will have a claims procedure for you to follow.Can a plane take off in 35 mph winds? ›
For example, horizontal winds or crosswinds that range from 30-35 knots or 34-40 mph can be a serious concern for pilots because they can disrupt the flight and make it difficult to control the airplane. At these wind speeds, aircraft are prohibited from takeoff and landing.Can planes take off in 25 mph winds? ›
In summary, it's perfectly safe to fly in strong wind. The aircraft can handle it, and the pilots are well trained to do so. Just expect it to be a little bumpy during take-off and landing. But, there is nothing to be scared of.Will a plane fly in a storm? ›
Jet aircraft can safely fly over thunderstorms only if their flight altitude is well above the turbulent cloud tops. The most intense and turbulent storms are often the tallest storms, so en route flights always seek to go around them.
- Check-in Online. ...
- Pack Smart. ...
- Give Yourself Extra Time. ...
- Set Lots of Alarms and Arrange Transportation. ...
- Consider a Hotel Near the Airport. ...
- Catch Some Zzz's on Your Morning Flight. ...
- Be Prepared.
Best Flight Times When Leaving Home
Just like us after a night of good sleep, airline circulation is freshest in the morning. If your flight departs in the morning, you are less likely to be affected by delays that stack up during the day and push back or cancel departure times.
Why not try a different season? As a general rule, flying in quiet months between holidays is your best bet to get a cheap, less crowded flight. You should definitely try the second half of January, the first days of February, early May, or the most part of September and October.What time of day is turbulence the worst? ›
It might be surprising to learn that turbulence is actually worse in the daytime. In the early morning and night time, wind speeds typically reduce, and thunderstorms clear up. Avoid turbulence and catch up on some sleep by choosing flights with an early morning or red-eye departure!What days are best to fly in summer? ›
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays typically have the lowest airfares. Most business travelers fly on Mondays and Fridays, and leisure travelers typically have work or school obligations throughout the week. Generally, the best day of the week to fly is Tuesday or Wednesday.What hour of day is best to fly? ›
“The best time of day to fly is almost always very early in the morning,” said Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer. “Early morning flights are much less likely to get delayed or canceled than those taking place later in the day.What is the most expensive month to fly? ›
For most destinations, peak summer is madness for travel. And that high demand for peak season raises flight prices for you. Typically, flight prices increase from mid-May or maybe early June through to mid-August or early September as families get out for summer break and other travelers set out for sunny adventures.What day is best to buy airline tickets? ›
- Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the cheapest days to fly domestically.
- Saturday and Monday flights can help you avoid the Sunday rush.
- Wednesdays and Thursdays are the cheapest day to fly internationally.
- Book one to three months in advance.
- Set a price alert.
When searching for a great travel deal, it's best to search both logged in and anonymously to compare all the deals, because it can make a difference — but not a significant difference. Flight prices can vary based on the day and time at which you perform your search.Is flight delay a technical fault for compensation? ›
If your flight's delayed for 3 or more hours
You're entitled to get compensation if the flight arrives more than 3 hours late and it's the airline's fault - for example, if they didn't get enough bookings or there was a technical fault.
If your flight gets cancelled by the airline, you are entitled to receive either a full ticket refund or a new flight. If the flight is cancelled after you have already arrived at the airport, you are also entitled to care.Are airlines liable for plane crashes? ›
Regardless of how they happen, if negligence either caused or contributed to the accident, the airline may be held liable. Like any other corporation, airlines act through their employees; so, negligence on the part of an employee makes the airline responsible for the consequences.What expenses can I claim for flight delay? ›
When experiencing a flight disruption, you may - in addition to compensation as well, get your extra expenses reimbursed by the airline, consisting of food, drink, transportation and hotel. As an individual, it might sometimes be difficult to know when you are entitled to get your extra expenses reimbursed.What is the 2 hour rule for flight delay compensation? ›
The only exception is if the flight was canceled less than one week before departure. If you now look for an alternative at short notice, and this is why you arrive more than two hours late at your destination, you can make a claim for compensation. So if your flight is delayed by 2 hours, there is no compensation.How much is EC261 compensation? ›
The law, which is now known as EU261 (or EC261), states that in such cases a traveller can be eligible to claim compensation between 250 and 600 euros, depending on flight distance.How long can an airline delay a flight? ›
Since the duration of a flight delay can vary depending upon the reason for the delay, there is no time limit for how long a flight can be delayed. For example, once a flight was amazingly delayed by bees for up to four hours until a beekeeper was called to resolve the situation.Can I sue if my flight is Cancelled? ›
Unfortunately, airlines don't guarantee their schedules and the fine print on your ticket (or email confirmation) usually means you can't sue for a canceled flight.Can I claim a refund and compensation for delayed flight? ›
Depending on your travel insurance policy, you could be able to claim compensation from your insurer when the delay isn't the airline's fault. Check your policy terms and conditions for what situations it'll cover.What happens if an airline cancels your flight? ›
Refund entitlements for your flight
The US Department of Transportation says you are entitled to a refund of your ticket cost because of a cancellation or “significant delay” and you choose not to travel. This is the policy regardless of the reason the airline cancels or delays the flight.
Generally, yes you can sue an airline in small claims court. The U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”), which is a federal agency that regulates airlines operating in the U.S, even publishes a Consumer's Guide to Small Claims Court.
The airline can be sued for the wrongful death of the passenger. In general, the family can recover financial compensation, known as “damages,” for loss of support, and children can recover for loss of a parent's nurture, care and guidance.How much can you sue an airline for? ›
You may file a lawsuit against an airline in small claims court as long as the amount you intend to sue for is within the small claims court limit (on average $10,000 or less).