What you need to know about flight delays and cancellations this summer

More people flew out of US airports on Sunday (2.46 million according to the Transportation Security Administration) than on any other day so far this year. The Thursday and Friday before this July 4 holiday are expected to be even busier, with Hopper, a travel booking app, predicting that nearly 13 million passengers will fly to, from and within the United States this weekend. of week.

The question for many travelers is whether they can trust airlines to get them where they want to go on time.

I couldn’t blame them for assuming the answer is no. On June 17, the Friday before the Monday June 16 holiday, nearly a third of flights were late, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking company. Between last Saturday and the Monday before the July 4 weekend, US airlines have already canceled nearly 2,500 flights. At a meeting on June 16, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, told the airlines that he would be closely monitoring their performance. The next day, his own flight from Washington to New York was cancelled.

In a letter Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders urged Buttigieg to start fining airlines for particularly serious cancellations and delays. Among other proposals, he suggested that airlines should pay $55,000 per passenger for any canceled flight where it was clear in advance that they could not staff.

However, before postponing any upcoming travel, it’s worth taking a close look at cancellation and delay data for insights into how travel has and hasn’t changed this year.

Social media is full of claims that air travel is the worst ever. In fact, on some holiday weekends and stormy weeks it has been staggeringly bad. As Sanders pointed out in his letter, airlines have canceled flights four times as often on busy weekends than in 2019. But the reality is that airline reliability was pretty dire even before the pandemic.

US airlines have been operating between 21,000 and 25,000 daily flights in recent months. So far in 2022, an average of one in five daily flights have been delayed, a total of more than 820,000 delayed flights according to FlightAware. More than 116,000 flights have been cancelled. All of this adds up to tens of thousands of people missing weddings, funerals, and work events and struggling to save their vacations. But in 2019, over a comparable period, it wasn’t much better. Back then, 17 percent instead of 20 percent were also late, and the average delay time was 48 minutes instead of 49 minutes.

“I think the reason people notice it a lot more is because it clusters around these holiday periods,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot who is now a spokeswoman for FlightAware.

Although holiday weekends have always been a gamble, crew staffing issues magnified by overly ambitious schedules mean there’s less slack in the system now, said Bob Mann, a longtime airline executive who now runs RW. Mann & Company, an airline consulting firm. Weather that could have canceled a dozen flights at some airports is now more likely to have a far more dramatic ripple effect, canceling thousands of flights at dozens of airports. This has been particularly true for low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Spirit, which canceled a whopping 10.3 percent and 9 percent of flights in April, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

“A number like 10 percent that I’ve never seen before,” Mr. Mann said.

If you want to build in protection in case your flight is canceled, never book the last flight of the day, advised Shawn Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot and professor of aviation safety at The Ohio State University.

Two New York-area airports, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia, have had the most cancellations in the United States so far this year, about 6 percent of all flights, according to data from FlightAware. In terms of delays, Newark was also one of the two most annoying airports to fly to, delivering people to their destination late nearly 30 percent of the time. Only Orlando International had a comparable percentage of delayed flights.

In general, flying from Florida has been difficult. More than one in four flights at Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa airports have been delayed so far this year. Only flights from Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway airports were late at comparatively low fares, according to data from FlightAware.

No region can entirely blame its unreliability on coronavirus-related issues. But each has gotten worse for reasons related to the pandemic, aviation experts say.

Airports in travel hubs like New York City have long had more cancellations and delays than other airports, Dr. Pruchnicki said. That is partly by design. If airlines need to cut flights, they’ll use a New York one as a sacrificial lamb “because it gives them more options to divert passengers,” he said.

New York City has also long been vulnerable to delays because air traffic controllers have to choreograph activity from numerous airports within 50 miles of each other. “It’s a flying spaghetti ball,” said Mr. Mann, the former airline executive.

Lately, at least according to United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, there haven’t been enough air traffic controllers to handle the spaghetti.

“They’re doing everything they can but, like many in the economy, they’re understaffed,” Kirby told Bloomberg last week. In an internal memo, United outlined plans to temporarily cut 50 flights from Newark on July 1 to “keep flights on schedule.”

In Florida, the crux of the problem, several analysts said, is the state’s enormous popularity as a vacation and relocation destination. Airlines have responded by increasing flights. But then, when thunderstorms hit, as they often do in Florida, because air traffic control in the area is already stretched thin, it’s harder for airlines to get back on track than before, said Kenneth Byrnes, chairman of the department. of Embry’s flight. -Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

That said, avoiding hubs may not be the way to go, some analysts said, because if your flight is canceled, hubs offer more options for rebooking.

In the past three months, JetBlue, Allegiant Air and Frontier were abysmal late a third of the time, with average delays of nearly an hour, according to data from FlightAware. The three low-cost carriers were also the slowest carriers in 2021, according to the Annual Airline Quality Rating Report, an analysis of Department of Transportation data published by Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas.

Throughout the pandemic, JetBlue has often blamed staff for delays and cancellations. In a statement Thursday, an airline spokeswoman said the airline had made necessary schedule cuts and now has enough pilots and other crew to keep flights running when they are supposed to. The airline blamed most of the recent delays on air traffic control problems in “the congested and inclement weather-prone Northeast Corridor.”

“We made the decision in April to reduce flights by more than 10 percent this summer so that we can more reliably operate our schedule with our current staffing and other limitations in the national aviation system,” the spokeswoman said in the statement. “With our reduced capacity, JetBlue had a sufficient number of pilots and crews on board to operate our schedule in June,” she added.

The Transportation Workers Union, which represents JetBlue flight attendants, has often clashed with the company over delays and cancellations. On Thursday, Gary Peterson, the union’s international vice president, said he thought explaining poor flight performance primarily as an air traffic control and weather problem was disingenuous. “Typically, JetBlue seeks to blame everyone but its own leadership team for the airline’s failings not just for passengers but for flight crew as well,” he said.

The lesson for the average traveler may be to pay close attention to which airline is selling that ticket before clicking buy. Particularly on short weekend trips, wasting even an hour may not be worth saving $100. In recent months, no major airline could be relied on to be on time more than 90 percent of the time, something that was rare even before the pandemic, but Delta, Hawaiian, Alaska and United came closest. with more than 80 percent of the flights. arrive on time, according to data from FlightAware and the Office of Transportation.

Ultimately, for those who want to be sure their flight isn’t canceled or delayed, skipping air travel during busy weekends seems like the best option.

Delta seemed to be offering that advice when, on Thursday, it said it would waive change fees and ticket price differentials for anyone booked to fly between July 1 and July 4 who wanted to change to another date on July 8. July or earlier.

As for this Fourth of July weekend, “My advice is to go get hot dogs and stay home,” said Dean Headley, co-author of Wichita State University’s airline rankings.

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