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All eyes on airlines as the fourth holiday weekend in July approaches

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A person stands at a sign in front of TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

AP

Airlines that have stumbled hard over the past two holidays face their biggest test yet of whether they can handle large crowds when travelers storm domestic airports on July 4 this weekend.

Problems surfaced well before the weekend, with some disruptions caused by thunderstorms slowing air traffic.

American Airlines canceled 8% of its flights Tuesday and Wednesday and United Airlines canceled 4% of its schedule both days, according to FlightAware.

Vacationers planning to drive face their own challenges, including high gas prices. The national average has fallen since mid-June hitting a record $5.02 to $4.86 a gallon on Thursday, according to AAA, which expects prices to continue to fall amid rising gasoline inventories.

Americans drive less. According to government figures, gas demand was down about 3% last week from the same week in June. In a June Quinnipiac University poll, 40% of those polled said gas prices have caused them to change their summer vacation plans.

Air traffic in the US is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Since last Saturday, an average of nearly 2.3 million people per day have passed through airport checkpoints – a drop of just 8% from the same days in 2019. If that trend continues through the weekend, records will be set for flights in the UK. pandemic era.

Airlines may not have enough planes and flights to carry them all, especially if there are cancellations due to weather, staff shortages, or some other reason.

“Airlines learn the hard way that there is a high price to pay for over-optimism,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. “They’re on the edge of a cliff this vacation.”

Schwieterman calculates that airlines have little cushioning between the number of travelers expected to fly this weekend and the flights they plan to operate — if all goes well. Any disruptions could cause chaos as planes are fully booked – there will be no empty seats on later flights to accommodate stranded travelers.

Airlines have been caught short of staff as they tried to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, to replace those they encouraged to quit as the pandemic plunged air traffic.

Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have cut summer schedules to ease the strain on their operations. They use larger aircraft on average to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. Those steps have not been enough so far this summer.

Delta Air Lines took the unusual step this week to alert travelers to problems over the holiday weekend.

The Atlanta-based airline said it expects its biggest crowds since 2019, and this will create “some operational challenges.” Passengers booked on flights between Friday and Monday can change their timetable free of charge, even if the new flight has a higher fare.

“Delta people are working around the clock to rebuild Delta’s operation while making it as resilient as possible to minimize the ripple effect of disruptions,” the airline said.

Delta had by far the most canceled flights of any U.S. carriers over the Memorial Day holiday, when U.S. carriers canceled nearly 2,800 flights, and again last weekend, when it canceled 7% of its flights, according to FlightAware.

Airlines are increasingly trying to blame the delays on understaffing at the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the country’s airspace and hires air traffic controllers.

“This year compared to previous years, the biggest problem has been air traffic control,” said Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle. “We’ve taken a lot of steps to avoid downtown Jacksonville in our schedule, and we’ve reduced some flying to make that possible.”

The FAA has a large facility in Jacksonville, Florida, which handles many flights along the East Coast. After meeting with airline representatives in May, the FAA pledged to get more staff at the center.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian blamed the FAA during an online meeting with employees on Wednesday, Airline Weekly reports. Delta declined to comment.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed back earlier this week when the head of trade group Airlines for America blamed the FAA for delays.

“Most cancellations and most delays have nothing to do with air traffic control personnel,” Buttigieg told NBC Nightly News.

Helane Becker, an aviation analyst for investment firm Cowen, said there are many reasons for the disruptions, including weather, FAA ground stops taking too long and flight crews reaching their legal limit of working hours in a day. The airlines “seem to fail” when it comes to day-to-day operations, and the FAA hasn’t trained enough new air traffic controllers — a process that could take up to four years — to offset retirements.

“We expect it to be a long, tiring summer for everyone,” she said.

The loudest of lawmakers usually seem to blame airlines for abandoning passengers. Some point to Congress giving the industry $54 billion in pandemic aid.

sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged Buttigieg to require airlines to issue refunds for delays of more than an hour and fine them for delays of more than two hours and for scheduling flights they unable to man. Sanders accused airlines of stranding passengers while charging “outrageously high prices”.

Buttigieg has threatened fines if airlines fail to resolve their operations.

Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., this week asked 10 airline CEOs to “take immediate action” to reduce travel interruptions. The senators demanded information about how each airline decides which flights to cancel and the number of refunds requested and granted by consumers.

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