New report blames airlines for most flight cancellations

Congressional investigators said in a report Friday that an increase in flight cancellations as travelers recovered from the pandemic was largely due to factors that airlines controlled, including cancellations for maintenance problems or crew shortages.

The Government Accountability Office also said airlines are taking longer to recover from disruptions such as storms. Increases in cancellations in late 2021 and early 2022 lasted longer than they did before the pandemic, the GAO said.

Much of the increase in cancellations caused by airlines has occurred at low-cost carriers, but the biggest airlines have also made more unforced errors, according to government data.

Airlines have clashed with Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg over blame for high rates of canceled and delayed flights over the past two years. Airlines claim that the authorities are to blame for not having enough air traffic controllers, while Buttigieg has put the blame on the airlines.

The GAO report was requested by Republican leaders of the House Transportation Committee. The GAO said it examined flight data from January 201[ads1]8 to April 2022 to understand why travelers experienced more delays and cancellations as travel began to recover from the pandemic.

The GAO said weather was the leading cause of cancellations in the two years before the pandemic, but the percentage of cancellations caused by airlines began to increase in early 2021. From October to December 2021, airlines caused 60% or more of cancellations — higher than at anytime in 2018 or 2019.

At the time, the airlines were understaffed. Airlines took $54 billion in taxpayer money to keep employees on the job through the pandemic, but they cut workers anyway by paying them incentives to quit.

As travel returned, airlines struggled to replace thousands of deceased workers. They now have more workers than in 2019 — and the cancellation rate this year is lower than the same period in 2019, according to data from tracking service FlightAware.

A spokeswoman for the trade group Airlines for America said the majority of cancellations this year have been caused by severe weather and air traffic control violations — about 1,300 flights were canceled in one day because of a disruption in a Federal Aviation Administration safety alert system.

“Barriers have taken responsibility for challenges within their control and continue to work hard to improve operational safety as demand for air travel rapidly returns,” spokeswoman Hannah Walden said. “This includes launching aggressive, successful hiring campaigns for positions across the industry and reducing schedules in response to FAA staffing shortages.”

Several airlines agreed to reduce flight times in New York this summer at the request of the FAA, which has a severe shortage of controllers at a central facility on Long Island.

In 2019, Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines had the highest percentage of their own cancellations caused by an airline-controlled issue—more than half of each airline’s cancellations. At the end of 2021, they were joined by low-cost carriers Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Frontier, each responsible for 60% or more of their own total cancellations, according to the GAO.

The percentage of cancellations caused by the airline also increased at Southwest, Delta, American and United. The figures did not include the 16,700 cancellations in late December at Southwest that followed the breakdown of the airline’s crew reassignment system.

The GAO said the Transportation Department has increased its oversight of airline scheduling practices. The Ministry of Transport and Justice is investigating the case about Southwest scheduling more flights than it could handle before the meltdown last December.

The Southwest debacle has led to calls to strengthen passenger compensation rules.

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