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With Fourth of July travel days away, US airports already setting pandemic records

June 27, 2022
10 min read
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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

For the second time in three days, U.S. airports set a pandemic record for crowds amid a travel rush not seen in years. Not to mention, there are still days to go before Fourth of July holiday travel gets into full swing. Agents at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints screened 2,462,097 passengers Sunday — eclipsing the mark set two days earlier, on Friday — making it the single busiest travel day since February of 2020.

While Friday and Sunday certainly stood out for the record-setting nature of the passenger traffic, those days are part of a distinct trend. Nine of the ten busiest days for air travel passenger volume since March 2020 have come in the last month — and the majority of those days fell in the last week or two. It's a surge we've been anticipating for months, as part of a summer travel season unlike any in recent years.

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Unfortunately, this weekend (and the early part of the week) has been a reminder of the current air travel landscape. Major airlines canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend. Delta Air Lines led the pack with more than 200 cancellations Saturday and Sunday, and the disruptions lingered into the early part of the week. By mid-morning Monday, Delta had canceled another 200 flights for the day, around 6% of its schedule.

Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines each had single days with 100 or more cancellations between Sunday and Monday, according to data from FlightAware.

Delta's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) hub saw the most flights canceled over the weekend, though no single airport experienced disruptions of the scope seen last week at places like New York City's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT). By mid-morning Sunday, the airline had canceled close to 200 more flights.

In past weeks when Delta canceled flights, the carrier pointed to a combination of staffing, weather and air traffic control challenges.

It's shaping up to be a busier holiday weekend for travel than any in the last two and a half years, and there are surely future travelers eyeing the recent disruptions and wondering how to best prepare.

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Travelers walk to their gate inside Terminal D at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport/Twitter)

More pandemic air travel records could fall

AAA projects more than 3.5 million travelers will fly during the upcoming holiday weekend, between Thursday and Monday.

Despite the large crowds, AAA predicts air travel will actually — by a slim margin — make up the smallest share of overall Fourth of July travel in more than a decade, and suggests passenger concern about airline operational issues could be a factor. It also means millions of travelers are driving, despite the continued impact of high gas prices.

Even still, it’s likely the crowds will top even the busiest days seen in the past week. Travel booking site Hopper, which analyzes airfare, calls the upcoming holiday weekend the “busiest and most expensive travel weekend in years”; the company blames both the anticipated crowds and the fact that the average airfare for the holiday travel period ($437 for a domestic round-trip flight) is up 45% compared to 2019 prices.

The busiest travel days surrounding Memorial Day weekend were the Thursday and Friday prior to the holiday, TPG reported in late May. Keep this in mind if you're planning to travel this weekend — it's a relevant comparison since July 4th falls on a Monday this year.

Related: Avoiding long lines at the airport and during your travels

Spring 2022 on the tarmac at Boston Logan International Airport (BOS). (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Airlines turn attention to FAA

As the holiday weekend approaches, airlines are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure sufficient staffing at its most critical facilities. After airline executives met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg a week prior, Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s largest carriers, sent Buttigieg a letter Friday; the letter argues that understaffing at FAA facilities — particularly in Jacksonville, Florida — has been “crippling” East Coast operations. Solving air traffic delays has been the subject of much discussion in recent months.

The organization pointed to efforts by airlines in recent weeks to do “everything within their power to deliver a safe and on-time product” during the Fourth of July weekend and the remainder of the summer. This includes cutting 15% of flights through August and taking steps to make it easier for passengers to make itinerary changes using airline mobile apps.

The FAA responded to Friday’s letter with a statement suggesting U.S. taxpayers deserve to have their expectations met when they buy plane tickets since airlines received tens of billions in pandemic relief, the Associated Press reports.

Preparing for the unexpected

There are things you can do now to prepare for the unexpected if you have already booked travel for next weekend.

1. Reserve your airport parking spot in advance

A trend we’ve seen this year – especially in recent weeks – is how quickly airport parking lots can fill up.

Many airports have reservation systems that allow you to book your parking spot in advance. This can be a good way to ensure you don’t have to spend precious pre-flight time searching for a place to park and to know exactly how much you’ll pay for parking.

Read more: Airport parking crisis? How to save while securing a spot

2. Consider packing light so you don’t have to check a bag

There are a number of reasons you might want to stick to carry-on luggage, including avoiding long checked bag lines at the airport. It can also help ensure your luggage arrives with you at your destination in the event your itinerary changes.

Late-arriving luggage at the airport on June 23 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Perhaps most importantly right now, it means you’ll have your belongings with you if a leg of your trip gets canceled and you end up having to spend the night in a connecting city like I had to on my last trip. The big caveat, of course, is that you’ll have to make sure everything in your bag adheres to TSA restrictions. You’ll also want to double-check whether your ticket allows for a complimentary full-sized carry-on bag.

Read more 7 steps to take when the airline loses your luggage

3. Download the airline’s app and learn how to navigate it

As I discussed in my account of my travel woes last week, your airline’s app is often your best bet to get your trip back on track when things go awry. It can offer you easy ways to rebook your canceled or delayed flight with just a few clicks. That’s not to say it will always offer an easy solution. When mass disruptions happen, finding available seats on flights can be a real problem. However, in a lot of cases, using the app is a much easier and quicker alternative to waiting in line or on hold.

Read more: Even more reasons to download your airline’s app: summer delays and cancellations

A messy departures and arrivals board last week at New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA). (Photo by Nick Ewen/The Points Guy)

4. Familiarize yourself with protections offered by your credit card or insurance plan

Did you buy travel insurance for your trip? Does one of your travel credit cards offer you reimbursement for expenses incurred due to trip disruption? It could be worth taking a few minutes in advance to learn your benefits so that – in the event you need them – you’re not trying to figure out what’s covered and what’s not in the midst of a stressful situation.

Read more: 4 times your credit card’s travel insurance can help with summer travel woes and 7 times it won’t

A storefront remained temporarily closed June 15 at Raleigh/Durham International Airport (RDU). (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

5. Think about where you’ll eat and drink along the way

Although most airport food locations have reopened, there’s still a good chance you could run into long lines at coffee spots or other popular concessionaires, as many try to handle heavy customer traffic without full staffing. Some airline and airport apps offer food-on-the-go options while certain food and beverage places – like airport Starbucks locations, for instance – offer mobile ordering options that can help you jump otherwise lengthy lines.

Read more: Your wait for coffee or food at some airports could finally get shorter

Looking ahead to the next holiday weekend

Did you miss out on planning a trip for Memorial Day or the Fourth of July? The next long holiday weekend, of course, is Labor Day.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of prices dropping just after that holiday marks the unofficial end to summer. So, you might want to wait until then to save money (and possibly aggravation at the airport) by planning an end-of-season getaway.

If you’re planning to fly that holiday weekend, Hopper says Saturday is generally your best bet for a departure day when it comes to getting a deal for a long weekend getaway. The site noted that when it came to Fourth of July weekend travel, most people booked their flights five to six weeks in advance – in late May or early June. So, if you haven’t already booked something, now is a good time to look.

As you can read in this post about the best times to book cheap airfare in 2022, that window – several weeks out – is when airlines begin to actively manage their flights, leading to greater fluctuations in prices, experts say.

Planes sit in traffic at New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA) on June 16. (Photo by Sean Cudahy/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Despite the recent challenges, the latest passenger traffic numbers are a reminder that airport crowds aren’t going away this summer, particularly not as the holiday weekend gets closer.

All the apps and advanced planning in the world can’t remove the sting of frustration most travelers feel when their itinerary gets severely upended. That said, it may be worth heading into your trip prepared as these disruptions could happen along the way.

Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport)
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.