US flights returning to normal after another holiday weekend packed with cancellations

Originally Published: 04 JUL 22 11:50 ETBy Chris Isidore, CNN BusinessP>

(CNN) -- Flights at US airports appeared to be returning to normal on Mondayafter another difficult holiday weekend for passengers caused by a rash of canceled flights.

Tracking service FlightAware showed about 2,000 flights to, from, or within the United States canceled between Thursday and Sunday, or 2% of scheduled flights. There was a peak of 657 flights canceled on Saturday.

Bad weather played a role once again, but staff shortages throughout the airline industry also fed into the problem. Airlines don't have the staffing, especially among pilots, to adjust when bad weather causes delays.

But the good news is that Monday morning FlightAware data showed only 177 flights canceled by mid-morning, less than 1% of the schedule.

This is the third-straight holiday weekend in which there has been a spike in canceled flights as the airlines struggle to handle the demand for flying with limited crews. About 3% of scheduled flights from Friday though Monday of Memorial Day weekend were canceled, and about 4% of flights during the Thursday to Monday period around the Father's Day and Juneteenth weekend.

Back in 2019, ahead of the pandemic, canceled flights typically didn't top 1% of the schedule, even during holiday weekends. And when bad weather caused a spike in canceled flights, as it did on Saturday, July 6 of that year, the operations returned to normal far more quickly.

But it's not just holidays causing problems. Cancellations over the July 4 weekend were actually down from the previous week, when daily cancellations ranged from 2.5% to 3.6% of the schedule.

Cancellations are becoming the normal because of the staffing situation, said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot now working for FlightAware.

"Weather has always impacted aviation, but the weather so far this summer hasn't been any worse than normal," she said. "When we see severe weather, it is taking airlines longer to scramble and recover. They don't have the deep bench of pilots to call in. It really seems to be more of a systemwide staffing issue, trickling down to FAA in terms of air traffic control system."

To deal with the staffing shortages, US airlines are also in the process of trimming their summer schedule, despite the strong demand for travel. But that combination of strong demand and limited supply for seats is only driving up the average price of air fares to levels above what passengers paid ahead of the pandemic. The average fare paid by leisure travelers is up nearly 50% from a year ago, according to the most recent data compiled by Wall Street firm Cowen.

Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants, said the airlines are not doing enough to hire the additional staff they need,from front-line workers such as pilots, mechanics and flight attendants to the support staff, including those who handle scheduling.

"Crews are waiting for one, two, three, four hours to get in touch with a crew scheduler," Nelson told CNN's Christine Romans on Monday. She said that means some crew members reach the end of the hours they're allowed to work without being put on another flight.

"We're very frustrated with the airlines on the back-end operational support during this time too," she said.

But she said some of the problems with delays and canceled flights are unavoidable.

"I want to remind people, it's not always the airlines' fault. So a little empathy to the people on the front lines. We're going to get you there safely," she said.

The problems with cancellations are not limited to US flights. FlightAware data showed that there were a total of nearly 1,800 flights canceled worldwide on Sunday alone, with more than 1,400 occurring outside the United States.

Switzerland-based EasyJet announced Monday that Peter Bellew had resigned as chief operating officer of the discount carrier, following flight cancellations, staff shortages and strikes.

But the problems are getting more attention in the United States, especially since US airlines received $54 billion in federal assistance to help them weather the drop in traffic during the pandemic. The money was used to keep staff in place so they would have enough workers once air traffic returned. But just about all the airlines used voluntary buyouts and early retirement packages to still trim staff during the downturn, leading into the staffing shortage.

Sen. Bernie Sanders cited that government help to airlines when calling on the Transportation Department to impose steep fines when flights are delayed or canceled -- requesting fines of $55,000 per passenger if airlines cancel flights they know cannot be fully staffed.

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