Not so friendly skies: Summer air travel is off to a bumpy start

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Air travelers were faced with flight cancellations and delays at the start of the July 4th weekend. The worst problems were experienced at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). Customers were advised on Friday afternoon to arrive at least two hours early for flights because airlines were experiencing the “highest passenger volumes since before the pandemic this weekend.”

According to the website Flight Aware, by 4:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon, DFW had 135 flights canceled and 458 flights delayed. This level of misery for airline customers was record-breaking. These statistics were the most of any airport in the world at that time.

American Airlines had canceled 138 total flights and Southwest Airlines had canceled 194, as of 4:00 p.m.

At the time, Flight Aware reported 2,453 cancellations and 10,476 delays in airports around the world. Of those cancellations, 662 were within, into or out of the United States.

The TSA reported Friday its workforce had screened 2,147,090 people at airport security checkpoints across the country Thursday, which surpassed the volume in 2019 of 2,088,760.

Weather is blamed for most of the problems. According to the Air Traffic Control System Command Center from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), bad weather and thunderstorms caused incoming flights to be delayed Friday morning. There were issues last week, too, even with Southwest Airlines, an airline not known to be plagued with delays and cancellations. Southwest has been dealing with computer problems, as well as staffing shortages. Other airlines are also dealing with staff shortages, including a shortage of pilots. Air travel has ramped up so quickly in the weeks as the pandemic wanes, airlines have been caught unprepared and overwhelmed.

Southwest Airlines customers have struggled with thousands of delays and hundreds of canceled flights in the past three weeks because of computer problems, staffing shortages and bad weather.

American Airlines is also grappling with a surge in delays, and it has trimmed its schedule through mid-July at least in part because it doesn’t have enough pilots, according to the pilots’ union.

At the same time, the number of Americans getting on planes is at a pandemic-era high. Just under 2.2 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports on Friday, the highest number since early March 2020.

In June and July there have been more than a dozen days when more than 2 million travelers went through U.S. airports according to the TSA. Domestic leisure travel is back to 2019 levels. There is a lack of business travelers, though, which brings the overall number of passengers over the last week down slightly compared to the same time in 2019. Airlines scheduled nearly twice the number of flights between Thursday and Monday as they did over the same days last year.

Even with the taxpayer-funded federal bail-outs for airlines, they find themselves with employee shortages.

Since the start of the pandemic, U.S. airlines have received $54 billion in federal aid to help cover payroll expenses. In return, they were prohibited from furloughing or laying off workers. However, they were allowed to persuade tens of thousands of employees to take buyouts, early retirement or leaves of absence.

Now some are finding they don’t have enough people in key roles, including pilots.

As Southwest officials braced for crowded flights over the holiday weekend, they offered to double pay for flight attendants and other employees who agree to extra work through Wednesday.

“The staffing shortage is across the board. On the pilot side, it’s a training backlog,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “Southwest came into the summer with very little margin.”

Another problem is the lack of airplanes. During the worst of the pandemic, airlines got rid of their older planes. It was a cash-saving effort. The vaccines were not yet available and the airlines thought that it would take years for travel traffic to rebound. For example, Southwest accelerated the retirement of 737-700 aircraft in 2020. Now it says they won’t have enough to support its business model in the next couple of years. Southwest is mostly a domestic air carrier and this shortage of aircraft will hinder expansion efforts. Delta Airlines did the same thing with three fleet types. Now those planes are in storage facilities and its too expensive to put them back into service. New builds are preferable but are slow to be delivered.

If you plan to travel overseas as countries open up to Americans, prepare to give yourself extra time to get your passport renewed. Renewal time is four to six weeks now, where it was one to two days for expedited service pre-pandemic. Passport offices across the country are inundated with appointments and applications.

“I don’t want that client that says I’m leaving tomorrow and my passport is expired, it’s a nightmare,” said Spyropoulos.

She recommends people find a reputable travel advisor to help you manage the ever-changing landscape of travel. She also recommends people act early, because traveling abroad in a pandemic comes with a certain level of uncertainty.

“Because of the fact that you know there are shortage and staffing, you know they’re going to be long lines, just be patient,” said Everett Kelley with the American Federation of Government Employees, and national president for TSA.

Whether you’re flying domestic or international, there will be significant waits and certainly frustration. In what appears to be the latter stages of a pandemic, this will be the first real chance for people to get away, if you can.

We’ve been told to be patient for over a year now, thanks to the pandemic. It looks like we are still being told the same when it comes to exercising some newfound freedom, like travel. There isn’t anything we can do about weather delays but the other problems are manmade. The airlines were too aggressive in encouraging employees to go on furlough or retire and then they got rid of valuable equipment expecting a longer delay in the resumption of travel. Now the flying public pays for bad decisions.