This Fourth of July weekend, more than 3.5 million people will travel by air, according to estimates from AAA. But many of those passengers are probably wondering whether they’ll actually make it onto the plane for their holiday trips, as flight cancellations and delays continue to surge.
So far this summer, travel plans have been repeatedly snarled by airlines’ operational issues, a mix of factors like staffing shortages and bad weather leading to tens of thousands of canceled and delayed flights. Most recently over the Juneteenth holiday weekend, when at least 32,000 flights were delayed and more than 5,000 were canceled from Thursday to Sunday, according to Business Insider.
Amid the ongoing air travel chaos, the federal government is stepping in. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline CEOs on Saturday, according to the AP, instructing carriers to ensure their flight schedules can be operated with the amount of employees they currently have and to hire more customer service agents. Buttigieg noted the Department of Transportation could take “enforcement actions” against carriers who don’t meet consumer protection standards, but he would wait to see what happens with flight disruptions over July Fourth.
It all means that airlines are under mounting pressure this Independence Day to minimize the amount of flight cancellations. Some carriers have already begun taking preventative measures, such as preemptively canceling flights.
United Airlines, for one, said on Thursday it was nixing 50 daily domestic flights out of its Newark hub, effective July 1. The airline says that although it has enough crew and planes to operate the flights, other factors—like Newark’s air traffic control being understaffed—are causing issues. “In the U.S. [air travel] industry the biggest bottleneck is probably air traffic control,” United’s CEO Scott Kirby said in a recent Bloomberg interview. “They are doing everything they can but, like many in the economy, they’re understaffed.” Newark’s air traffic control tower staffing has dipped 50 percent full in recent weekends, according to Kirby.
As such, United says its July flight cuts are to “help minimize excessive delays and improve on-time performance—not only for our customers, but for everyone flying through Newark.” The airline says it’s reaching out to affected customers and working with them on alternate options.
After mass cancellations over Memorial Day, Delta said it would scrub 100 daily flights from its summer schedule from July 1 through August 7. “This is meant to build additional resilience in our system and improve operational reliability for our customers and employees,” Delta said in a statement on its website. “We'll continue proactively adjusting select flights in the coming weeks.”
The airline says it’s notifying affected customers by phone and email. Elsewhere, Southwest and JetBlue made sweeping cuts to their summer flight schedules earlier this year to ease operational woes, with Southwest alone nixing 20,000 flights through Labor Day.
Some in the industry question whether canceling flights will be enough to solve the larger issues plaguing the air travel system. “I think it requires government help because the biggest issue is there’s more flights scheduled in Newark, for example, than there is capacity at the airport, even on a perfect blue sky day, and air traffic control is understaffed and because of that, there is just more flights than the airport can handle,” Kirby told CNN.
Unfortunately for passengers, experts say that given all these factors, it's unlikely the outlook will improve over July Fourth. “Of course, airlines cannot control [factors like] the weather, but they can control their staffing. However, it takes time to recruit and train new pilot hires, so sadly there’s nothing that airlines can do to guarantee smooth operations over the upcoming holiday weekend,” says Kerry Tan, associate professor of economics specializing in airlines at Loyola University. “Travelers should certainly prepare themselves for more flight disruptions over the upcoming holiday weekend. I personally will be traveling during the holiday weekend and made sure to book a flight as early in the morning as possible to avoid summer afternoon thunderstorms and minimize the risk of a delayed or canceled flight.”
If the scheduling turmoil continues, Tan says airlines are unlikely to receive more than a slap on the wrist from federal regulators. “The main enforcement mechanism that the Department of Transportation can impose are fines, although I don’t think that would be very impactful,” he says. “I don’t know how the fines would be assessed for these cancellations, but it’s unlikely to deter airlines from cancelling flights. The ideal enforcement action would be to force an airline who cancelled their flight to rebook passengers on another airline at no additional cost. This would be similar to the flight compensation regulations in the European Union.”
Travelers themselves seem to be growing wary of airlines’ efforts to stem the tide of cancellations. In fact, a record-breaking number of Americans are eschewing airlines all together over July Fourth and opting to drive this year instead. According to AAA, a whopping 42 million travelers are planning to road trip over the holiday. “Recent issues with air travel and ongoing concerns of cancellations and delays may be driving this increase,” says AAA’s release. “In fact, the share of people traveling by air will be the lowest since 2011.”