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


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More people flew out of U.S. airports Sunday — 2.46 million, according to the Transportation Security Administration — than on any other day this year. The Fourth of July holiday is expected to be even busier, with travel booking app Hopper forecasting about 13 million passengers to and from the United States this weekend.

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

They cannot be blamed for assuming the answer is no. According to FlightAware, a flight tracking company, on June 17, the Friday before the public holiday on Monday, June 10, nearly a third of flights arrived late. Between last Saturday and the Monday leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, US carriers have already canceled almost 2,500 flights. At a June 16 meeting, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told airlines that he would keep a close eye on their performance. The very next day, his own flight from Washington to New York was cancelled.

In a letter Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders urged Mr. Buttigieg to start penalizing airlines for especially egregious cancellations and delays. Among other proposals, he suggested that airlines pay $55,000 per passenger for any canceled flight that was clear up front that they could not staff.

However, before postponing any upcoming trip, it’s worth taking a close look at the cancellation and delay data to understand how travel has and has not changed this year.

Social media is filled with claims that air travel is the worst thing ever. Indeed, on some holiday weekends and turbulent weeks, it was startlingly bad. As Mr. Sanders noted in his letter, airlines were canceling flights four times more frequently on weekends with more trips than in 2019. But the reality is that airline reliability was terrible even before the pandemic.

In recent months, American airlines have operated between 21,000 and 25,000 flights a day. So far in 2022, an average of one in five flights per day arrived late, with a total of more than 820,000 flights delayed, according to FlightAware. Over 116,000 flights cancelled. All this leads to tens of thousands of people skipping weddings, funerals and work events and trying to save vacations. But 2019 was not much better over the comparable period. Then 17% – instead of 20% – were also late, and the average delay time was 48 minutes instead of 49 minutes.

“I think the reason people are seeing him much more often is because he is clustered around these holiday periods,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot and now a spokesperson for FlightAware.

While holiday weekends have always been something of a gamble, staffing issues exacerbated by overly ambitious schedules mean there is less slack in the system now, said Bob Mann, a longtime airline executive who now runs consulting firm RW Mann & Company. Weather that could have canceled a dozen flights at multiple airports is now likely to have a much more dramatic ripple effect, canceling thousands of flights at dozens of airports. This is especially true for low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and Spirit, which canceled a whopping 10.3% and 9% of flights in April, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

That same month, JetBlue announced that it would be canceling eight to ten percent of its flights through the end of the summer.

“I’ve never seen a figure like 10 percent before,” Mr. Mann said of early cancellations during peak periods.

If you want to build protection against your flight being cancelled, never book the last flight of the day, said Sean Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot and professor of aviation safety at Ohio State University.

New York’s two airports, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia, had the most cancellations in the US this year, with about 6 percent of total flights, according to FlightAware data. In terms of delays, Newark was also one of the two most frustrating airports to take off, getting people to their destination late almost 30 percent of the time. Only Orlando International had a comparable percentage of delayed flights.

In general, the flight from Florida was difficult. This year, more than one in four flights at Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa airports have been delayed. According to FlightAware, only flights from Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway arrive late at comparatively low prices.

None of the regions can entirely blame the coronavirus-related problems for their lack of reliability. But each has worsened for pandemic-related reasons, aviation experts say.

Airports in tourist centers like New York have long had more cancellations and delays than other airports, Dr. Pruchnicki said. This is partly by design. If airlines need to cut flights, they will use one from New York as a sacrificial lamb “because it gives them more options to reroute passengers,” he said.

New York also suffered from delays for a long time because air traffic controllers had to coordinate multiple airports within 50 miles of each other. “It’s a flying spaghetti ball,” said Mr. Mann, a former airline executive.

Lately, according to Scott Kirby, chief executive of United Airlines, there haven’t been enough air traffic controllers to fly spaghetti.

“They’re doing their best, but like so many in the economy, they’re understaffed,” Mr. Kirby told Bloomberg last week. In an internal memo, United outlined plans to temporarily cut 50 flights out of Newark on July 1 to “ensure flights are on time.”

In Florida, the crux of the problem lies in the state’s over-popularity as a vacation and relocation destination, some analysts say. Airlines have responded by increasing flights. But then when a thunderstorm hits — as is often the case in Florida — with air traffic control already pushed to the limit in the area, it’s harder for airlines to get back on track than before, said Kenneth Byrnes, chairman of Embry’s flight department. . – Riddle Aviation University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

However, according to some analysts, avoiding hubs may not be the right decision because if your flight is cancelled, hubs offer more options for rebooking.

Over the past three months, JetBlue, Allegiant Air and Frontier have been late by a third of their time, averaging almost an hour, according to FlightAware data. According to the annual Airline Quality Ranking Report, which is an analysis of Department of Transportation data released by Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas, the three low-cost carriers were also the most delayed in 2021.

Throughout the pandemic, JetBlue has often blamed staff for flight delays and cancellations. In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for the airline said the airline had made the necessary schedule cuts and now had enough pilots and other crew to operate flights as scheduled. The airline blamed much of the recent delays on air traffic control issues in the “weather-prone congested northeast corridor.”

“In April, we made the decision to reduce flights this summer by more than 10 percent so that we can more reliably meet our schedule with our current staffing and other restrictions in the national aviation system,” the spokesman said in a statement. “With our limited capacity, JetBlue had enough pilots and flight crew to meet our June schedule,” she added.

The transport union, which represents JetBlue’s flight attendants, often squabbles with the company over flight delays and cancellations. On Thursday, Gary Peterson, the union’s international vice president, said he thought the explanation of poor performance primarily due to weather and air traffic control was bogus. “In the usual manner, JetBlue tries to blame everyone but its management team for the airline’s failures, not only in terms of passengers, but also of the flight crew,” he said.

The lesson for the average traveler may be to pay close attention to which airline sells that ticket before clicking buy. Particularly on short weekend trips, losing even an hour may not be worth the $100 savings. In recent months, no major carrier could be counted on to arrive on time more than 90% of the time, which was rare even before the pandemic, but Delta, Hawaiian, Alaska and United came closest with over 80% of flights. arrives on time, according to FlightAware and the Bureau of Transportation.

Ultimately, for those who want to make sure their flight doesn’t get canceled or delayed, the best option is to skip air travel on a busy weekend.

Delta seemed to be offering that advice when it said Thursday it would be waiving change fees and ticket price differences for anyone who was booked on a July 1-4 flight and wanted to switch to a different date on or before July 8.

For this Fourth of July weekend, “my advice is to buy hot dogs and stay home,” said Dean Headley, co-author of the Wichita State University airline rankings.

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