Airlines avoid July 4 travel meltdown. Are flyers out of the woods?

Jul 5, 2022

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Call it the Independence Day air travel nightmare that never came.

After weeks of dire warnings that airlines were expecting the worst this holiday weekend — including one airline preemptively issuing an unusual network-wide change waiver — the industry made it through the weekend with some disruptions, but nothing apocalyptic.

The question now is if airlines can improve their operations for the rest of the summer, and restore consumer confidence.

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The staffing of highly-skilled workers — pilots and air traffic controllers, in particular — has been a root cause of the recent mess. That makes it is difficult to see how the situation immediately improves, since considerable time is needed to train new hires.  Tight staffing is exacerbated when weather throws a wrench into airline operations, which is what happened on Friday — the worst day for delays and cancellations during the holiday period. With fewer reserve pilots available to operate flights, a flight that might have been delayed in 2019 — when there were more pilots available — would now get canceled.

Friday set an ominous tone for the weekend, with widespread delays and cancellations marring the busy travel day. Even Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was among those whose Friday flight got canceled, something that came just a day after senior Federal Aviation Administration officials held a meeting with airline CEOs to discuss operational performance and expectations over the holiday weekend.

But the weekend ended much better than it began.

U.S. carriers canceled 1,019 flights on Friday and Saturday, with 11,636 flights experiencing delayed arrivals, according to FlightAware. By Sunday, 230 flights were canceled by U.S. carriers, with 3,746 flights experiencing delayed arrivals. Monday was the best day of the weekend: 186 canceled flights with 2,884 delayed arrivals.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines tied for the most canceled flights between Friday and Monday: 293 flights each — or about 3% of Delta’s “mainline” flights and 2% of American’s. United Airlines canceled 163 flights in that period — 2% of its flights. Regional airline Republic Airways, which operates flights for American, Delta and United, canceled 134 flights, or 4% of its schedule, while fellow regional Endeavor Air, which operates for Delta, canceled 121 flights — 5% of its schedule.

As of 8:45 a.m. ET on Tuesday, American had canceled 43 flights or 1% of its scheduled, while United canceled 20 flights and Delta canceled seven flights — less than 1% each.

Airlines have no choice but to get their act together, said Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research. If they don’t, they’ll face pressure from both customers and shareholders.

More: Thousands of flights delayed as biggest crowds in years hit airports

“If airlines don’t handle the summer well, they are destroying demand amongst consumers to travel in the future,” Harteveldt told TPG in an interview. A survey his firm conducted last month showed that 74% of leisure passengers said they regret having flown this summer or are dreading their upcoming flights.

“The airlines are digging themselves a financial hole with this constant stream of operational problems,” Harteveldt added. “If they don’t fix it, there’s going to be a bad reaction. Institutional shareholders are going to turn activist and demand change in leadership or boards — or both.”

Right now, Harteveldt said, booking a flight feels a little too much like gambling.

“When people book a flight they shouldn’t feel like they put money down at the craps table in Las Vegas,” he said.

Summer travel resources from TPG

Featured photo of travelers at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) on Saturday by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

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