By DAVID KOENIG AP Airlines Editor
DALLAS — 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 airports nationwide 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 for $4.86 per gallon Thursdayaccording to AAA, which expects prices to continue to fall due to rising gasoline inventories.
Americans drive a little less. Gas demand last week was down about 3% 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.
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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 over-optimism,” said DePaul University transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman. “They’re on the edge of a cliff this holiday.”
Schwieterman calculates that 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 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 during the Memorial Day holiday period, when US carriers cleaned nearly 2,800 flightsand 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.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian also blamed the FAA during an online meeting with employees on Wednesday, trade publication Airline Weekly reported. Delta declined to comment.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed back earlier this week when the head of the Airlines for America trade group accused the FAA of delays.
“The majority of cancellations and the majority of delays have nothing to do with air traffic control personnel,” Buttigieg told “NBC Nightly News.”
Helane Becker, airline analyst for investment firm Cowen, said the disruptions had many reasons, including weather conditions, FAA ground stops that last 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, I-Vt., urged Buttigieg to require airlines to reimburse delays longer than an hour and fine airlines for delays longer than two hours and for scheduling flights that ‘they can’t insure. Sanders accused the airlines of stranding passengers while charging “scandalously high prices”.
Buttigieg threatened with fines if the airlines do not correct their operations.
The senses. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked 10 airline CEOs this week 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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