Airlines struggle to cope as travel picks up and storms force delays

By Niraj Chokshi

Summer getaways are testing the limits of the country’s air travel system as airlines and airports try to restore operations that were decimated by the pandemic.

Nearly 10,000 flights were delayed in the United States on Sunday, as travel surged and airlines contended with bad weather and other disruptions.

Among the nation’s largest airlines, Southwest Airlines had the most delays, with 30% of flights running late, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. At American Airlines, 25% of flights were delayed, compared with 23% for United Airlines and 21% for Delta Air Lines.

The slowdowns occurred as travel reached new pandemic heights. The Transportation Security Administration screened 2.1 million people at its airport security checkpoints Sunday, the most since early March 2020.

Several airlines, including Southwest, blamed bad weather for the delays. Thunderstorms affected operations at Delta’s hub airports in Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit and complicated efforts to get flight crews in place, a spokesman said. At American, the problems had been building since earlier in the month.

“The first few weeks of June have brought unprecedented weather to our largest hubs, heavily impacting our operation and causing delays, canceled flights and disruptions to crew member schedules and our customers’ plans,” American said in a statement.

Each of the nation’s major airlines faced significant delays Sunday, but only American also had substantial cancellations, which affected about 6% of flights, according to FlightAware. Citing the bad weather, vendor labor shortages and the rapid rise in travel, American said it would cut back its schedule over the next few weeks to minimize last-minute disruptions.

“Our focus this summer — and always — is on delivering for our customers no matter the circumstance,” the airline said in a statement. “We never want to disappoint, and feel these schedule adjustments will help ensure we can take good care of our customers and team members and minimize surprises at the airport.”

All told, American cut about 1,000 flights in July, representing more than 0.5% of its schedule that month, according to Cirium, a flight data provider. Most of the cuts are concentrated in the first half of the month, the airline said.

The cancellation situation improved somewhat Monday. Delta and United had canceled few flights by early evening, while American and Southwest had canceled about 5% each. Still, just under a fourth of flights operated by American and Southwest had been delayed, while more than a tenth of flights operated by United and Delta had run late.

Despite the complications, the rebound is welcome news across the industry, which has suffered devastating financial losses. Only one large airline, Southwest, has reported a quarterly profit since the pandemic began.

But the resurgence has not come without difficulties. Reports of disruptive and sometimes violent passenger behavior are on the rise — so much so that a group of major airlines and unions asked the Justice Department on Monday to crack down on such conduct.

“These incidents pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees, and we respectfully request that the Department of Justice commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence,” the group said in a letter to the attorney general, Merrick Garland.

The recovery is far from complete. TSA screenings over the past week are down more than 25% from the same period in 2019, and corporate and international travel, two moneymakers for the airlines, have yet to pick up in any meaningful way.

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