Just days after Minister of Transport Pete Buttigieg met with airlines to ask them about the widespread flight disruptions in the US, his own flight was canceled Friday. Feeling all too familiar, he chose to drive from Washington, DC to New York.
“I thought, this is nice on the nose,” Buttigieg told NPR. “It illustrates what millions of passengers are currently concerned about.”
CEOs of the largest U.S. airlines reassured the Biden administration last week that they would learn from staffing errors over Memorial Day weekend, when about 2,800 flights were canceled, and focus on improving performance figures and customer service over the upcoming July 4 holiday. “Now we’re going to see how those steps measure up,” Buttigieg said The Associated Press†
After two years of a litany of COVID-19 restrictions, travel is back with a vengeance. More than 2.4 million people passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports, close to breaking the pandemic-era record on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2021, according to the Transportation Safety Administration.
The record would have been broken if airlines had not canceled 1,400 flights as thunderstorms hit parts of the East Coast. Airlines canceled more than 1,700 flights a day earlier, according to tracking service FlightAware, which also has a MiseryMap to see delays in real time.
Senate Democrats Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts sent a letter to the US airline industry group, Airlines for America, noting that delays and cancellations are “so common that they become an almost expected part of travel.”
Airports with the most cancellations included Charlotte, North Carolina, a major hub for American Airlines, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty in the New York City area, and Reagan Washington National outside Washington, D.C.
Extreme heat and major storms are key factors in the disruptions, but airlines have also recognized that staff shortages could continue through 2023 as bottled travel continues to rise, reports axios.
“If you’ve flown a plane lately, planes are very full and airfares are very expensive,” Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell said Wednesday at a news conference after the meeting.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) reprimanded the airlines for not showing a greater sense of urgency in replacing pilots who were retiring or taking leave in 2020. According to NBC News, Delta Air Line pilots have published an open letter to customers saying they expressed their frustration.
“We worked on our days off and flew a record number of overtime hours to help you get to your destination,” the letter reads. “At the current rate, our pilots will have flown more overtime this fall in 2022 than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date.
The Department of Transportation does have the power to take enforcement action against airlines that do not meet consumer protection standards, but Buttigieg believes it is not necessary yet. He is also well aware that the Federal Aviation Administration, part of his jurisdiction, is understaffed, especially in Florida.
“I have received many guarantees about the steps that [airlines are] and I know this is taken very seriously when it comes to any action airlines can take,” Buttigieg told NPR. “On the other hand, I’m now in a car instead of an airplane because we couldn’t get a flight as planned, so these disruptions remain a concern.”