Travelers at LaGuardia Airport in New York on June 30, 2022.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC
The Fourth of July holiday weekend will put airlines to the test after a messy spring angered travelers and drew sharp criticism from Washington.
Already this year, the rate of flight cancellations and delays in June was higher than before the pandemic as a result of bad weather and staffing shortages. And airlines and federal officials have been scrambling to ease 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 difference in fare, if they can fly outside of the busy July 1-4 weekend, if they can travel anytime through July 8. JetBlue Airways offered attendance bonuses for flight attendants this spring to ensure solid staffing. American Airlines regional airline Envoy is offering pilots triple pay to pick up extra trips through July.
And carriers including Delta, Spirit , JetBlue, Southwest and United recently trimmed their schedules to give themselves more wiggle room for when things go wrong.
The moves come as fares have soared and passenger counts near pre-pandemic levels. About 2.6 million people could depart U.S. airports each day of the weekend, according to estimates from the fare-tracker Hopper.
Travelers have largely been willing to pay the higher fares after being cooped up for two years in the pandemic. That’s been a boon for carriers that are more than making up for a surge in fuel costs. But flying is turning out to be a headache for many.
Nearly 176,000 flights arrived at least 15 minutes late between June 1 and June 29. That represents more than 23% of scheduled flights, according to FlightAware. And more than 20,000 − nearly 3% − were canceled.
That’s up from 20% of flights being delayed and 2% being cancelled in the same period of 2019.
By late Friday afternoon, close to 370 U.S. flights were canceled and more than 3,700 were delayed. The delays included nearly 500 American Airlines flights, or 14% of the carrier’s mainline schedule for the day, and 370 Delta flights, 12% of the airline’s schedule, according to tally from flight-tracker FlightAware.
Consumer complaints are piling up. In April, the latest available data, the Transportation Department received 3,105 from travelers about U.S. airlines, up nearly 300% from April 2021, and at nearly double the rate during the same period last year.
Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have sparred over who’s to blame. Airlines chalk up the disruptions to bad weather, their staffing shortages and staffing problems at the government’s air traffic control.
With demand for flights to Florida rising among vacationers, airlines have complained in particular about congestion stemming from a key air traffic control center in the state that oversees planes in flight over a large swath of the Southeast.
To avoid getting caught in those delays, Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle told CNBC this week that the carrier is changing how it schedules crews, limiting flying through that airspace to twice on single assignment. Flight delays tend to ripple through the rest of the network since crews arrive late for their next next flights.
The FAA, for its part, has called out moves by airlines to let go of tens of thousands of workers through buyouts, despite getting $54 billion in taxpayer payroll aid during the pandemic as a part of a rescue package that prohibited layoffs.
Space launches and military exercises are other obstacles.
Political pressure on airlines is rising. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly urged airlines to ensure they are ready for the summer travel season and to reduce disruptions after the recent spate of cancellations and delays, including one that affected a flight the secretary planned to take. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) also this week said airlines should be fined $55,000 per passenger for cancelling flights they know they cannot staff.
On Thursday, the FAA’s acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other top agency officials held a call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency’s use of 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 airlines.