After two consecutive summers of travel chaos, US airlines are going all out to prevent massive flight disruptions in the face of surging demand.
Carriers have cut flight schedules, increased staff, and invested in airport infrastructure and technology to prepare for the busiest travel season of the year, starting with the traditional kickoff over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Summer tends to be the most profitable season for airlines, but it’s also the busiest time of year, which raises the stakes.
Industry group Airlines for the U.S. expects to fly a record 256.8 million passengers in the June-August quarter, up 1% from 254.6 million passengers in the same period in 2019.
“It’s like our Super Bowl,” United Airlines Chief Operating Officer Toby Enquist told Reuters.
No one wants a repeat of last December, when an operational meltdown at Southwest Airlines resulted in the cancellation of nearly 17,000 flights, disrupting the travel plans of 2 million customers.
However, many have a high desire to travel.
Zihane Janty, 36, has plans to travel to Florida, Mexico City and Asia this summer, thanks to her flexible work arrangements.
The Los Angeles-based marketing director isn’t worried about flight delays and cancellations even though they’re “never fun.”
“It happens, so I really don’t let it throw me,” she said.
About a quarter of flights were either canceled or delayed last summer, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.
A recent survey by consultancy JD Power shows that customer satisfaction with major airlines is very low. The industry is also facing heat from the Biden administration, which wants airlines to pay passengers cash compensation for long delays.
The growing number of disputes between passengers and airlines worldwide is driving new legislation and calls for stricter enforcement of existing regulations to protect consumers.
‘It’s a test’
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said this week’s Memorial Day will be a “test of the system.” He said last year’s delay and cancellation rates were unacceptable and could not happen again.
Overall, 42.3 million Americans are expected to travel over the May 29 U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend, AAA estimates.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates about 313,000 flights will operate in the seven-day period ending May 30, up 4.5% from 2022 and slightly below pre-pandemic levels in 2019.
Demand for international travel is strong this summer, pushing airfares to Europe and Asia to their highest level in more than five years, online travel agency Hopper said.
Carriers are doing very well this year, but a shortage of air traffic controllers has forced them to trim New York City-area flights. They are flying larger planes to compensate for fewer flights.
United CEO Scott Kirby says the FAA needs more resources to handle the growing number of flights. Buttigieg said the agency needs about 3,000 air traffic controllers, but added weather and airline issues account for most of the problems.
United said it has hired 7,000 employees this year, including pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers and customer service agents, up from more than 15,000 last year.
It is adding gates in New Jersey, Denver and Chicago. It also added five new hangars worldwide to maintain its planes, Enqvist said.
Rival Delta Air Lines Inc. has hired and trained more than 25,000 employees to handle the summer travel rush. Southwest will operate 7% more flights than last year, with 15% more employees.
American Airlines COO David Seymour said airlines have learned from the past. American has invested in technology that allows it to plan in advance for weather events and has assigned general managers to ensure adequate staffing at its vendors.
“We’re really laser-focused on building a plan that has flexibility,” he said in an interview.
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