Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
The July 4 holiday weekend is off to a booming start with airport crowds crushing numbers in pre-pandemic 2019.
Travelers in the United States experienced hundreds of canceled flights and a few thousand delays on Friday, as they were earlier this week.
Patricia Carreno arrived at Los Angeles International Airport with friends to learn that their Alaska Airlines flight to Mazatlan, Mexico had been canceled.
“We’re probably going to drive to Mexico — to Tijuana, the border — and just fly from there,” she said.
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.4 million travelers at airport checkpoints on Thursday, 17% more than on the same Friday before July 4 in 2019. U.S. air traffic is likely to set a pandemic-era record at least once over the weekend. .
Traffic on the highway can also be heavy.
AAA predicts that nearly 48 million people will travel at least 50 miles or more from home on weekends, slightly less than in 2019. AAA says car travel will set a record even as the national average price for gasoline hovers around $5.
Leisure travel has bounced back this year, and that means big crowds especially during three-day holiday weekends.
With many flights sold out over the weekend of July 4, airlines will struggle to find seats for passengers like Carreno whose flights have been canceled. Airlines told customers to check the status of their flight before going to the airport.
If you’re already at the airport when your flight is canceled, “it’s time to hone your multitasking skills,” says Sebastian Modak, editor-in-chief of travel guide publisher Lonely Planet.
Modak advised going straight to the airline’s help desk, checking the app on your phone, and calling the airline’s customer service – an international number can be answered sooner than a US number for airlines that have both. He said driving or taking the bus or train is a better option for shorter trips.
“There’s no getting around the fact that this is going to be a summer of travel delays, cancellations and frustrations,” he said.
Early Friday evening on the East Coast, airlines had canceled about 500 U.S. flights and had another 5,100 delayed, according to FlightAware. Scattered thunderstorms in the New York City area made it likely that numbers would rise. From June 22 through Wednesday, at least 600 flights were canceled and between 4,000 and 7,000 were delayed per day, the tracking service said.
Airlines executives blame the recent surge in canceled flights on the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs the country’s air traffic control system, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg disputes that claim.
Passengers are trapped in the middle.
Mari Ismail, who flew to Atlanta on Friday, said it took a long time to check in and get through security for her flight from Baltimore.
“I got to my gate when they started boarding, so it was a very lengthy process,” she said.
Jordane Jeffrey said she had booked a return trip from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for Monday, the holiday.
“I hope there are no delays because I’m working that night,” she said.
Airlines sometimes overbook flights with the expectation that some passengers will not show up. When there are more passengers than seats, airlines will offer cash or travel vouchers to people who want to take the next flight.
Earlier this week, a columnist for Inc. magazine wrote: Delta flight attendants offered $10,000 in cash to people exiting a plane waiting to take off from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Delta spokesman Anthony Black would neither confirm nor deny the reporter’s report, but noted that the airline increased the fees it can offer agents in such cases to $9,950 in 2017. dragged a 69-year-old doctor from a sold-out plane — a case that resulted in a lawsuit, confidential settlement and late TV jokes about United’s customer service.
Even with vacationers crowding airports and planes, the total number of people flying has not fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to a decline in business and international travel. TSA screened 11% fewer people in June than in the same month of 2019.
Thursday marked only the 11th time since the start of the pandemic that TSA checked more people than on the same day in 2019, and only the second time since February.
Airlines could almost certainly carry more passengers if they had enough staff. Many U.S. airlines have cut their summer schedules after bad weather, air traffic delays and a lack of enough employees led to widespread cancellations over the Memorial Day weekend.
Airlines paid thousands of workers to retire during the early days of the pandemic, when air traffic plummeted and airline revenues dried up. They have been hiring staff lately, but it takes time to train pilots, which are particularly scarce.
Now, airlines vying for key personnel are offering double-digit pay increases to pilots, which provide leverage when negotiating new contracts.