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Memorial Day weekend crowds hit airports; Delta cancels hundreds of flights

May 28, 2022
8 min read
Delta travelers JFK Memorial Day weekend 2022
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Memorial Day weekend kicked off what’s expected to be the busiest travel season in a few years, and brought with it some of the same operational issues travelers have dealt with for months now. The challenges came as officials from airlines to hotels to destinations prepared for the start of not just a busy weekend, but a busy season ahead.

While things seemed to run smoothly for most major airlines in the U.S. as the holiday weekend got underway, the same cannot be said for Delta Air Lines, which canceled hundreds of flights accounting for nearly a tenth of its schedule on Saturday.

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The disruptions came just a few days after TPG reported that the airline was making changes to its summer schedule because staffing problems had made it less able to accommodate things like bad weather. The carrier had anticipated storms could present problems in the eastern U.S. during the holiday weekend, and had issued waivers in advance of the busiest travel days.

Travelers aboard a shuttle at New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA) Friday amid Memorial Day weekend travel. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Still, despite rising prices, the latest COVID-19 surge, and airlines and other travel providers continuing to face imperfect operating conditions, the numbers show Americans are, as anticipated, traveling in a way not seen since before March of 2020.

3 busy travel days

As you might have expected, Friday was the busiest day for air travelers heading out for Memorial Day weekend getaways. The TSA screened just under 2.4 million passengers both Thursday and Friday – both days that now rank among the top five busiest since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rush came despite this year's rise in airfare -- about a 28% spike for the holiday weekend compared to 2019, according to data from Hopper.

That both Thursday and Friday saw high passenger volume could be a nod to the added flexibility many American workers did not enjoy prior to the pandemic, as pointed out by Clear, the paid service that allows travelers to cut airport security lines after verifying their biometrics at a kiosk.

Related: How working from home might impact travel in a post-pandemic world

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Clear said its data showed a 40% spike in verifications at U.S. airports on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday compared to the same period in 2019. The agency saw that as a potential sign outbound Memorial Day traffic was more spread out than in pre-pandemic years, “changing how we view the normal Memorial Day Weekend rush,” Clear said in a statement Saturday.

Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) shared photos of the busy travel morning heading into the long weekend on social media, highlighting crowds inside its terminal.

Continuing a trend TPG has reported on throughout the spring, airports have taken to social media to warn travelers that parking lots were filling up rapidly.

Saturday morning, Miami International Airport (MIA) said on Twitter, that its garages were “reaching capacity” due to record-breaking Memorial Day travel.

The airport asked travelers still heading to the airport this weekend to consider being dropped off by friends or family. The airport hasn’t just approached pre-pandemic numbers in 2022; on one day earlier this spring, it broke its all-time single-day record for passenger traffic.

Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) said as of mid-morning Saturday, its non-reserved parking was completely full.

Preparing for the rush

From the airlines to the airports, the travel industry had been preparing for what was expected to be the busiest few days in years.

At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) in Texas, officials told TPG they had been seeing passenger traffic approaching pre-pandemic levels through much of the spring.

Still, airport leadership viewed Memorial Day weekend as a “crescendo” of that ramp-up, DFW Executive Vice President for Revenue Management and Customer Experience Ken Buchanan said in an interview with TPG Friday, pointing to the airport’s efforts to fully open concessions, iron out processes and showcase technological and physical upgrades made during the downtime of lower traffic points during the pandemic.

Related: Phoenix airport to its food and drink vendors: get back to normal hours

“There will be days where we will exceed 2019 levels,” Buchanan said of the anticipated 2022 summer travel season. “Overall, we will be close to 2019, but definitely there will be days where we will exceed 2019.”

As the airport approached the rush, Buchanan and his team preached to staff about the need for readiness in hopes that by the time the weekend rolled around, they would be prepared to handle the surge in traffic.

“We want to remove the emotion of anger out of the travel experience,” he said.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Delta facing continued operational issues

Recent operational issues did not let up for Delta Air Lines though as the holiday weekend got underway.

After putting out notices this past week detailing staffing issues that had made it more vulnerable to external disruptions like bad weather, the Atlanta-based carrier canceled hundreds of flights in the middle of the holiday weekend, just a week after its worst operational day of the spring a week earlier when Delta canceled 280 flights.

As of Saturday afternoon, Delta had canceled 243 flights, about 9% of its schedule, according to data from FlightAware, on a weekend where storms in the Northeast and Southeast caused disruptions. Delta’s operating base of Atlanta saw the most cancellations of any U.S. airport Saturday, with 5-6% of its inbound and outbound flights canceled.

After storms Friday, the other U.S. airports most affected included Newark Liberty International (EWR), New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Delta’s hub in Detroit (DTW).

By mid-afternoon Saturday, Delta had already canceled about 75 flights for Sunday.

The carrier is planning flight cutbacks going forward in the summer months, largely aimed at reducing disruptions by making its schedule more manageable as it navigates subpar staffing levels. In a memo last week, the airline pointed out that the resurgence of travel following the pandemic has, in some ways, amounted to the "rebuilding" of the airline.

Related: Here’s what to do if your flight is canceled or delayed

Memorial Day weekend travelers filled Moynihan Train Hall in Manhattan at the start of the Memorial Day weekend on May 27, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Bottom line

As expected, neither continued disruptions in the travel industry nor inflated prices seem to be holding back travelers. Numbers so far on Memorial Day weekend show some of the largest crowds during the entire COVID-19 pandemic heading to airports.

As you return from the long weekend or prepare for your first getaway, be sure to keep an eye on social media feeds at your departure and arrival airports in case there’s important information to know – whether about parking, wait times or anything else to expect during your travels.

And of course, even as destinations are easing more COVID-19 restrictions than they’re adding, the last two-plus years have repeatedly shown the importance of closely monitoring the situation at your destination.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023