Air Travelers Face Massive Delays Over Labor Day Weekend

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Arjun Singh Contributor
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  • Data shows a significant increase in canceled flights over the Labor Day weekend, leading to heavy travel disruptions across the country.
  • Airline industry representatives claim that staffing shortages are the problem, while analysts accuse airlines of overbooking flights.
  • The Biden administration has taken steps to improve airline transparency, though experts say its hands are tied.

Flight delays and cancellations across the United States, especially over the recent holiday weekend, have resulted in heavy disruptions for consumers, with the Department of Transportation (DOT) acting to hold airlines accountable.

On Labor Day, over 4,000 flights within, into, or out of the United States were delayed, while over 100 were canceled, according to FlightAware, a website that uses public data to track flights worldwide. Figures for the month of August were even worse, with nearly 10,000 more flights delayed than in the same period in 2021, according to data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

The data was even worse for cancellations, with over 9,000 more flights canceled in August than in the same period in 2021. Though the total number of flights canceled, 17,876 flights, amounted to just 3.1% of all commercial air operations in August, it was a two-fold increase over the previous period, per BTS data.

The airports with the most consistently disrupted were in the New York City area – Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy and Fiorello LaGuardia international airports, the latter two of which have been declared “Level 3” airports by the Federal Aviation Administration. Such airports are subject to “regular and significant flight delays” and require airlines to use their required parking slots “80% of the time,” or else have them transferred to others. As of writing, these airports were further under a “Ground Stop” on Sept. 6 due to bad weather.

Other airports with consistent delays included Chicago O’Hare, Dallas–Fort Worth, Miami-Dade and Washington Dulles, according to FlightAware’s Misery Map.

Industry experts have cited a variety of factors for the increase in delays. Chief among them has been a labor shortage, continuing from the days of COVID-19, when over 400,000 workers were furloughed or laid off, per analysis by Bloomberg. They claim that shortages – of pilots, cabin crews, mechanics, and air traffic controllers – have not recovered since the onset of the pandemic.

In a June letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Nicholas E. Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, which represents airlines, wrote that “staffing issues have led to traffic restrictions under ‘blue sky’ conditions.”

Staff on duty, meanwhile, feel overworked and fatigued – even as they are subject to mandatory rest periods. Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, told The Washington Post that “Pilot fatigue on average this summer has been four to five times higher than we’ve seen in any summer.” Several nationwide pickets were organized by industry unions on Labor Day to protest working conditions.

These problems come even as airlines have increased their scheduled flights as post-pandemic travel surges. “Never in my 30-year career have we seen demand that is as robust as it is,” Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci told Axios. The DOT’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report showed that, between January and June, flight operations had surged by over 25%.

Over the Labor Day weekend, alone, the Transportation Security Administration reported screening 8.76 million air passengers, the first time that passenger volumes had exceeded 2019 levels. The increase in bookings combined with staffing shortages is a recipe for delays, say elected officials and experts.

In a move to pressure airlines to resolve their issues, the Department of Transportation has announced a raft of measures to force airlines to better compensate consumers for disruptions.

Chief among them is a regulatory change that would require airlines to offer passengers a full refund, in cash, if their flight is canceled. At present, airlines are required to offer refunds for refundable tickets only, sometimes in the form of credit for future travel. The proposed change would expand and mandate this protection for all tickets purchased on U.S. airlines. The rule is currently proceeding through to a statutory public comment period.

Addtionally, the FAA announced in August the creation of an online dashboard that would allow passengers to compare 10 major airlines’ cancellation and delay policies before booking a flight.

However, even as these measures are imposed, experts expect little change, given the historical deregulation of the airline industry, limiting the DOT’s authority to act. “There’s really very little that the government can do because airlines are supposed to be a free-market business,” industry analyst Henry Harteveldt to Politico. Others, like Robert Mann, predicted “more of the same … delays and cancellations” for post-summer travel.

The FAA and DOT did not immediately respond to a request from comment from the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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