The 4th of July travel wave puts airlines – and passengers – to the test

Travelers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on June 30, 2022.

Leslie Joseph | CNBC

The Fourth of July holiday weekend will test airlines after a messy spring that angered travelers and drew heavy criticism from Washington.

Already this year, the rate of flight cancellations and delays in June was higher than before the pandemic due to bad weather and lack of staff. And airlines and federal officials scrambled to quell frustrations ahead of the busy holiday weekend.

This week, Delta took the unusual step of allowing travelers to change flights for free, without paying a fare difference, if they can fly outside of the busy July 1-4 weekend, if they can travel to any time until July 8. JetBlue Airways offered attendance bonuses for flight attendants this spring to ensure strong staffing. American Airlines’ regional airline Envoy is offering pilots triple pay to fly additional trips through July.

And carriers such as Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have recently cut their schedules to give themselves more leeway if something goes wrong.

The changes come as fares have soared and passenger numbers are near pre-pandemic levels. About 2.6 million people could leave US airports each day over the weekend, according to estimates from fare tracker Hopper.

Travelers have been widely willing to pay the higher fares after being locked down for two years in the pandemic. This has been a boon for carriers, more than offsetting soaring fuel costs. But flying turns out to be a headache for many.

Nearly 176,000 flights arrived at least 15 minutes late between June 1 and June 29. That’s more than 23% of scheduled flights, according to flight tracker FlightAware. And more than 20,000 – or almost 3% – have been cancelled.

This represents an increase from 20% flights delayed and 2% canceled during the same period of 2019.

Consumer complaints are piling up. In April, according to the latest available data, the Department of Transportation received 3,105 travelers on US airlines, up nearly 300% from April 2021, and nearly double the rate over the same period. last year.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have been squabbling over who is to blame. Airlines attribute the disruptions to bad weather, their staff shortages and staffing problems at government air traffic control.

As demand for flights to Florida increases among vacationers, airlines have complained in particular about congestion resulting from a key air traffic control center in the state that oversees planes flying overhead. a wide swath of the southeast.

To avoid getting caught up in those delays, Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle told CNBC this week the carrier is changing the way it schedules crews, limiting flying in that airspace to twice in one time. assignment. Flight delays tend to affect the rest of the network as crews arrive late for their next flights.

The FAA, for its part, has called on airlines to lay off tens of thousands of workers through buyouts., despite securing $54 billion in taxpayer payroll relief during the pandemic as part of a bailout banning layoffs.

Space launches and military exercises are other obstacles.

Political pressure on airlines is increasing. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly urged airlines to ensure they are ready for the summer travel season and reduce disruption after the recent spate of cancellations and delays, including one that assigned a flight that the secretary was planning to operate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) also said this week that airlines should be fined $55,000 per passenger for canceling flights they know cannot endow.

On Thursday, Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen and other senior agency officials held a call with airline executives to discuss planning for the weekend, including use by the agency worked overtime to staff its facilities, traffic and routing plans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call was in addition to regular planning meetings with the airlines.

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