July 4 travelers see fewer flight cancellations, but still headaches

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It wasn’t smooth for everyone, but the busiest travel weekend of the year was not the disaster some had feared. The Independence Day holiday saw fewer flight cancellations compared with recent holiday weekends despite a large number of delays.

Between Friday and Monday, 1,435 flights — about 1.5 percent of scheduled domestic flights — were canceled, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. That number was down from the 2,653 flights that were canceled during the four-day travel period over Memorial Day weekend. The July Fourth travel weekend also brought fewer delays than Memorial Day, even though about 1 in 5 scheduled flights experienced disruptions, according to FlightAware.

The performance improved came amid stepped-up pressure on airlines to improve after Memorial Day weekend delays drew scrutiny from lawmakers and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Warnings of problems stemming from staffing shortages, weather and air traffic control issues didn’t deter air travelers: The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 8.8 million passengers between Friday and Monday.

Friday was the busiest day for air travel of the pandemic era, with nearly 2.5 million passengers screened. It was the busiest day in the nation’s skies since Feb. 11, 2020.

Flight cancellations, delays are stressing out already weary travelers

To reduce delays and cancellations, many air carriers have pared back schedules and are training new employees to replace the 50,000 who left during the depths of the pandemic. In May, Delta Air Lines, for example, cut 100 daily flights between July 1 and Aug 7, while United Airlines cut 50 daily flights from its Newark hub. Still, airlines increased the number of flights they operated between July 1 and July 4 by roughly 550, compared with a similar four-day period over Memorial Day weekend.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which the airline industry has blamed for some flight issues, said in a statement Tuesday it took several steps to ensure that the aircraft could operate safely over the holiday weekend, including adding alternative routes, putting more air traffic controllers in high-demand areas and increasing overtime to keep air traffic moving over the holiday weekend.

In the days leading up to July 4, Buttigieg hosted a virtual meeting with airline executives, pressing them on what steps they were taking to improve performance.

Buttigieg had his own travel difficulties over the July Fourth holiday — his second in recent days. After one of his connecting flights was canceled, he took to Twitter to offer advice to consumers on how to ensure airlines offer proper compensation in such situations.

Last month, Buttigieg drove to New York after a flight from Washington was canceled. The disruption came during the weekend of Father’s Day and Juneteenth, a travel period that prompted demands for more accountability from airlines after more than 3,000 flights were canceled and 19,000 were delayed over a three-day period.

Carriers have also tried to reduce the number of customers affected by last-minute cancellations. American Airlines, for example, sends emails and alerts via its mobile app to encourage customers to move reservations to another day.

July 4th weekend brings more delays, cancellations

Mike Van de Ven, president and chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines, said the carriers’ efforts to better align its flight schedule with its staffing is paying off. The carrier canceled 50 flights during the four-day July Fourth holiday travel period — its lowest rate in more than five years. Van de Ven also said call wait times — a significant source of complaints among customers at all carriers — had been reduced to two minutes

“We’ve been focused on aligning our staffing and flight schedule to deliver reliable performance,” he said in a statement.

Still, the union representing ramp workers, whose duties include handing luggage and guiding planes in and out of gates, said there are significant staffing shortages that are leaving many employees anxious and exhausted.

“Southwest’s horrendous treatment of its ramp workers is completely unacceptable, and we believe much of it is due to poor planning by its executives,” said Randolph Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, which is in negotiations with the carrier.

Welcome to the hell that is travel this summer

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents major US carriers, said the industry’s efforts to improve the travel experience for its customers will continue.

“US airlines were pleased to welcome millions of air travelers back to the skies to celebrate the Fourth of July,” the trade group said in an emailed statement. and increasing communication with travelers — to do so over the holiday weekend.”

Kathleen Sullivan of Alameda, Calif., had heard horror stories of misbehaving passengers, and delayed and canceled flights amid a pandemic that rages on.

Even so, she said she was pleasantly surprised at how easy her trip home to San Francisco was, even while traveling Friday on the busiest day of the holiday weekend. She had opted to fly from Paine Field, a smaller airport north of Seattle, rather than the larger Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“Clean, comfortable, great staff, cheap parking,” she said. And since she had TSA PreCheck, which offers expedited screening to passengers who have been pre-vetted, moving through security was quick.

Her Alaska Airlines flight was full, she said, but she was relieved there was room for her carry-on. The worst part of the trip: the drive back home in San Francisco traffic.

With more than a month to go in the summer travel season, it is not clear whether airlines will need to take additional steps to prevent a repeat of last summer’s flight disruptions. TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement Tuesday that travelers should continue to be prepared.

“We expect the summer travel season to remain busy, and we encourage passengers to arrive at the airport in plenty of time to park, check-in, check bags, get through the checkpoint with identification in hand and get to their gates in time for boarding,” he said.

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