Air passengers across the United States faced widespread cancellations and delays this weekend, caused by a boom in travel demand combined with extensive shortages of staff.
From Friday to Sunday, airlines flying within, into or out of the United States canceled more than 1,400 flights, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking website, and stranded and angered some passengers on their way to long-awaited summer vacations. In addition, more than 14,000 flights were delayed this holiday weekend, according to the website’s data.
Some airlines appeared to be struggling to cope with approaching passenger volumes or in some cases even exceeded prepandemic levels. On Friday, the Transportation Safety Administration examined more passengers ̵[ads1]1; 2.49 million people – than on any other day this year. It surpassed the 2.18 travelers shown on July 1, 2019, before the pandemic.
The experience was frustrating for some passengers on US airlines. On Saturday, 1,048 – or 29 percent – of Southwest Airlines flights were delayed, as was 28 percent of American Airlines flights, according to FlightAware. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines had similar problems, with 21 percent and 19 percent of their flights also delayed. On Sunday, in the middle of the holiday weekend, it seemed that travelers got a respite from the worst problems.
“Of course, if it’s your flight that was delayed or canceled, it’s a disaster,” said Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline chief who now operates the airline RW Mann & Company.
In a typical month, Mr. Mann noted, about 20 percent of flights are delayed or canceled. But this holiday weekend, he said, it was about 30 percent – an increase of 50 percent. “It’s a little worse than usual,” he said.
Increasing pressure on airlines this weekend was a flaw in American Airlines’ pilot scheduling system that allowed pilots to drop thousands of flight missions for July. The airline said on Saturday that it did not anticipate any “operational impact” due to the error.
But the Allied Pilots Association, the union for American Airlines pilots, said the airline had unilaterally reintroduced the dropped flights without the consent of the pilots. The union said it was pressuring the airline to pay an “inconvenience premium” to pilots affected by the scheduling system problems.
As a nod to growing passenger frustrations this summer, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, apologized last week.
“I know many of you may have experienced disruptions, sometimes significant, in your travels as we rebuild our business from the depths of 2020 while meeting a record level of demand,” Bastian wrote in a LinkedIn post. He added: “Although the majority of our flights continue to operate on time, this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable.”
In an email, Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, said the airline controlled “the complex factors” of bad weather and flight control delays, which affect the availability of flight crews. The airline “worked around the clock to make Delta’s operation as robust as possible to minimize the ripple effect of disruptions,” Durrant said. “Nevertheless, some operational challenges are expected this holiday weekend.”
However, as the holiday weekend progressed, the wave of flight problems began to subside. On Sunday night, Delta had canceled only 1 percent of its flights, and only 15 percent of Southwest Airlines flights had been delayed, according to FlightAware.
Southwest said on Sunday that they delivered “a safe, reliable experience across our network today with currently less than 10 total cancellations” for the day.
American Airlines and United Airlines did not immediately respond to comments seeking comment.