All eyes are on the airlines as the 4th of July holiday weekend approaches

Airlines that have stumbled over the past two holidays face their biggest test yet of whether they can handle large crowds when Fourth of July travelers swarm the country’s airports this weekend.

Problems emerged well before the weekend, with some disruption caused by thunderstorms slowing air traffic.

American Airlines canceled 8% of its flights Tuesday and Wednesday, and United Airlines cut 4% of its schedule on both days, according to FlightAware.

Partygoers who consider driving face their own challenges, including high gas prices. The national average has fallen since hitting a record high of $5.02 in mid-June to $4.86 a gallon on Thursday, according to AAA, which expects prices to continue falling in due to rising gasoline stocks.

Americans drive a little less. Gas demand last week was down about 3% from the same week last June, according to government figures. In a Quinnipiac University poll in June, 40% of respondents said gas prices caused them to change their summer vacation plans.

Air travel in the United States is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Since last Saturday, nearly 2.3 million people on average per day have passed through airport checkpoints, down just 8% from the same days in 2019. If this trend continues throughout the weekend, records will be set 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 conditions, lack of crew or any other reason.

“Airlines are learning the hard way that there is a high price for excessive optimism,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “They’re on the edge of a cliff this holiday.”

Schwieterman calculates that airlines have little margin 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 as planes are full – there will be no empty seats on later flights to accommodate stranded travellers.

Airlines have been caught short of staff as they try to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, to replace those they encouraged to leave when the pandemic caused air travel to plummet.

Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have reduced their summer hours to reduce stress on their operations. They use larger aircraft on average to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. These measures have not been sufficient so far this summer.

Delta Air Lines took the unusual step this week to warn travelers that there could be issues over the holiday weekend.

The Atlanta-based airline said it expects the biggest crowds since 2019, which will create “operational challenges.” It allows passengers booked on flights between Friday and Bank Holiday Monday to change their schedule free of charge, even if the new flight is offered at a higher fare.

“The people at 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 US airline over the Memorial Day holiday period, when US carriers cut nearly 2,800 flights, and again last weekend, when it canceled 7% of its flights, according to FlightAware.

Airlines are increasingly trying to blame delays on understaffing at the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the nation’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers.

“This year compared to previous years, the biggest issue has been air traffic control,” said Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines. “We’ve taken many steps to avoid downtown Jacksonville in our programming, and we’ve reduced some flights to accommodate that.”

The FAA has a major facility in Jacksonville, Florida, which handles many flights along the East Coast. After a meeting with airline representatives in May, the FAA promised to increase staff at the center.

CEO of Delta Ed Bastien also blamed the FAA during an online meeting with employees on Wednesday, trade publication Airline Weekly reported. Delta declined to comment.

transport secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed back earlier this week when the head of the Airlines for America business group blamed the FAA for the delays.

“The majority of cancellations and the majority of delays have nothing to do with air traffic control personnel,” Buttigieg told “NBC Nightly News.”

Helen Becker, an airline analyst for the investment firm Cowen, said the disruptions had many reasons, including weather conditions, FAA ground stops that lasted too long and flight crews reaching their legal limit. working hours per day. Airlines “seem to be failing” 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 compensate for retirements.

“We expect it to be a long and tiring summer for everyone,” she said.

The most vocal lawmakers seem to mostly blame the airlines for leaving passengers stranded. Some point out that Congress gave the industry $54 billion in pandemic relief.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, urged Buttigieg to require airlines to reimburse delays over an hour and fine airlines for delays over two hours and for scheduling flights they don’t. can’t assure. Sanders accused the airlines of stranding passengers while charging “scandalously high prices”.

Buttigieg threatened fines if airlines did not correct their operations.

Meaning. Edward Markeythe Massachusetts Democrat, and Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, this week called on 10 airline CEOs to “take immediate action” to reduce travel disruption. The senators requested information on how each airline decides which flights to cancel and the number of refunds requested and granted to consumers.

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Republished with permission from The Associated Press.


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