US travelers face new wave of chaos as flight cancellations continue

<span>Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP</span>
Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Travelers were subjected to a new wave of flight chaos across the US on Sunday, with about 1,000 flights cancelled. The toll added to about 14,000 flights within, out of, or into the US that were cancelled or delayed on Friday and Saturday.

Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta was one of the worst hit airports – the facility saw passengers stranded over the weekend as Delta cancelled or changed dozens of scheduled flights.

Delta has previously blamed the delays and cancelations on increased sick calls due to Covid-19, poor weather, and vendor staffing. Last week, it said it planned to cancel 100 flights a day in July and August to prevent summer travel disruptions.

“A variety of factors continue to impact our operations, including challenges with air traffic control, weather, and unscheduled absences in some work groups,” a Delta spokesperson said Saturday.

The Atlanta-based carrier has been one of the worst affected during the recent surge in disruption. It cancelled 700 flights of 2,400 flights collectively cancelled over the three-day Memorial Day weekend, which was the highest number of any US airline that weekend.

Among the airports with the highest number of cancellations are American Airlines hub Charlotte Douglas in North Carolina; LaGuardia and Newark Liberty in the New York City area; and Washington DC’s Reagan Washington National.

Last week, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg met virtually with several top airline CEOs to discuss challenges facing the industry and to press airline executives to improve service ahead of the July 4 holiday.

“Air travelers should be able to expect reliable service as demand returns to levels not seen since before the pandemic,” Buttigieg tweeted on Friday. A day after the conference call, Buttigieg’s own internal flight was canceled, and he wound up driving from Washington to New York.

“That is happening to a lot of people, and that is exactly why we are paying close attention here to what can be done and how to make sure that the airlines are delivering,” he told the Associated Press in an interview Saturday.

Buttigieg said his department is considering punishing airlines with sanctions if they fail to live up to consumer-protection standards. During the meeting, airline executives said they were taking steps to avoid a repeat of the Memorial Day travel issues.

“Now we’re going to see how those steps measure up,” Buttigieg said.

The pressure on airlines to improve performance comes as demand for air travel has rebounded sharply. About 2.4 million people passed through TSA security checkpoints at US airports on Friday, close to a pandemic-era high recorded over Thanksgiving.

While weather is considered the primary disruptor for summer travel, the airline industry is scrambling to hire or re-hire pilots, cabin crew and airport staff laid off or incentivized to quit during the pandemic.

Shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration – which is under the purview of Buttigieg’s department – has contributed to flight delays, especially in Florida. The Transportation Security Administration has created a roving force of 1,000 screeners who can be dispatched to airports when checkpoint lines get too long.