More people flew out of airports in the United States on Sunday — 2.46 million according to the Transportation Security Administration — than on any other day so far this year. The Fourth of July holiday is expected to be even busier, with Hopper, a travel booking app, predicting that nearly 13 million passengers will fly to, from and within the United States this weekend.
The question for many travelers is whether they can trust airlines to get them where they want to go on time.
You could not blame them for assuming the answer is no. On June 17, the Friday before the Monday Juneteenth holiday, nearly a third of flights arrived late, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking company. Between last Saturday and Monday ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, U.S. carriers already canceled nearly 2,500 flights. In a June 16 meeting, Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, told airlines that he’d be closely monitoring their performance. The very next day, his own flight from Washington to New York was canceled.
In a letter on Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders urged Mr. Buttigieg to begin fining airlines for particularly egregious cancellations and delays. Among other proposals, he suggested that airlines should pay $55,000 per passenger for any canceled flight that it was clear in advance they could not staff.
Before postponing any upcoming trip, though, it’s worth taking a close look at cancellation and delay data for insights into how travel has, and has not, changed this year.
Percentage of cancellations so far this year vs. a comparable time in 2019: 2.8 percent vs. 2.1 percent.
Lesson: The idea that air travel was so much better before the pandemic may be clouded by nostalgia for Before Times.
Social media is filled with declarations that air travel is the worst it’s ever been. Indeed on some holiday weekends and stormy weeks it’s been astoundingly bad. As Mr. Sanders noted in his letter, airlines have canceled flights four times as often on high-travel weekends as they did in 2019. But the reality is that airline reliability was pretty terrible even before the pandemic.
U.S. airlines have been operating somewhere between 21,000 and 25,000 flights a day in recent months. So far in 2022, an average of one of out five flights a day arrived behind schedule — a total of more than 820,000 delayed flights according to FlightAware. More than 116,000 flights have been canceled. All of this adds up to tens of thousands of people missing weddings, funerals and work events and grappling with how to salvage vacations. But in 2019 during a comparable period, it was not that much better. Back then, 17 percent — instead of 20 percent — also arrived late and the average delay time was 48 minutes instead of 49 minutes.
“I think the reason people are noticing it so much more is because it’s clustered on these holiday periods,” said Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial pilot who is now a spokeswoman for FlightAware.
Though holiday weekends have always been a bit of a gamble, crew staffing issues magnified by overambitious schedules means there’s now less slack in the system, Bob Mann, a longtime airline executive who now runs R.W. Mann & Company, an airline consulting company, said. Weather that might have canceled a dozen flights in a few airports is now more likely to have a far more dramatic ripple effect, canceling thousands of flights in dozens of airports. This has been particularly true for low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Spirit airlines, which canceled a whopping 10.3 percent and 9 percent of flights in April, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
That same month, JetBlue announced that it would cancel eight to ten percent of flights throughout the rest of summer.
“A number like 10 percent I’ve never seen before,” said Mr. Mann of the advance cancellations for a peak travel period.
If you want to build in protection in case your flight is canceled, never book the last flight of the day, advised Shawn Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot and professor of aviation safety at the Ohio State University.
Least reliable airports: Newark, LaGuardia and Orlando
Lesson: Major hubs were always nightmarish particularly on busy weekends. Changing travel patterns and air traffic control staffing issues have made them worse.
So far this year, two New York area airports, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia, have had the most cancellations in the United States — around 6 percent of total flights — according to FlightAware data. In terms of delays, Newark was also one of the top two most aggravating airports to fly out of, delivering people to their destination late nearly 30 percent of the time. Only Orlando International had a comparable percentage of delayed flights.
In general, flying out of Florida has been rough. More than one out of four flights at airports in Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa have been delayed so far this year. Only flights from Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway airports arrived late at comparably poor rates, according to FlightAware data.
Neither region can blame its lack of reliability entirely on coronavirus-related issues. But each has gotten worse for reasons connected to the pandemic, aviation experts say.
Airports in travel hubs such as New York City have long had more cancellations and delays than other airports, said Dr. Pruchnicki. That’s partly by design. If airlines need to cut flights, they’ll use one from New York as a sacrificial lamb “because it gives them more options for rerouting passengers,” he said.
New York City has also long been vulnerable to delays because air traffic controllers have to choreograph activity for numerous airports within 50 miles of one another. “It’s a spaghetti ball of flying,” said Mr. Mann, the former airline executive.
Lately, at least according to Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ chief executive, there haven’t been enough air traffic controllers to manage the spaghetti.
“They are doing everything they can but, like many in the economy, they’re understaffed,” Mr. Kirby told Bloomberg last week. In an internal memo, United outlined plans to temporarily slash 50 flights from Newark on July 1 to “keep flights moving on-time.”
In Florida, the heart of the issue, several analysts said, is the state’s supersized popularity as a vacation and relocation destination. Airlines have responded by increasing flights. But then when thunderstorms strike — as they frequently do in Florida — because air traffic control in the area is already pushed to the limit, it’s harder for the airlines to get back on track than before, said Kenneth Byrnes, the flight department chair at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
That said, avoiding hubs may not be the way to go, some analysts said, because if your flight is canceled, hubs offer more options for rebooking.
The most-delayed major airline in recent months: JetBlue
Lesson: Paying more for a ticket on an airline with a better on-time track record may be worthwhile for short trips.
Over the past three months, JetBlue, Allegiant Air and Frontier arrived late an abysmal one third of the time, with average delays of nearly an hour, according to FlightAware data. The three low cost carriers were also the most-delayed in 2021, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating Report, an analysis of Department of Transportation data published by Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan.
Throughout the pandemic JetBlue has often blamed staffing for delays and cancellations. In a statement on Thursday, an airline spokeswoman said that the airline had made the necessary schedule cuts and now has enough pilots and other crew to keep flights running when they are supposed to. The airline blamed the bulk of recent delays on air traffic control issues in “the congested weather-prone Northeast corridor.”
“We made the decision in April to reduce flying by more than 10 percent this summer so that we can more reliably operate our schedule with our current staffing and other constraints on the national aviation system,” the spokeswoman said in the statement. “With our reduced capacity, JetBlue had a sufficient number of pilot and inflight crews to operate our schedule in June,” she added.
The Transport Workers Union, which represents JetBlue flight attendants, has often butted heads with the company on delays and cancellations. On Thursday, Gary Peterson, the international vice president of the union, said he thought that explaining away poor flight performance as primarily a weather and air traffic control issue was bogus. “In typical fashion JetBlue is looking to blame everyone but their own leadership team for the airline’s failings for not only passengers but also flight crew,” he said.
The lesson for the average traveler may be to pay close attention to which airline is selling that ticket before clicking buy. Particularly on short weekend trips, losing even an hour may not be worth saving $100. In recent months, no major carrier could be relied on to arrive on time more than 90 percent of the time — something that was rare even before the pandemic — but Delta, Hawaiian, Alaska and United came the closest with more than 80 percent of flights arriving on time, according to FlightAware and Bureau of Transportation data.
Ultimately for those who want to be certain that their flight is not canceled or delayed, the best bet seems to be skip air travel during busy weekends.
Delta seemed to be offering that advice when, on Thursday, it said it would waive change fees and ticket-price differentials for anyone who was booked to fly between July 1 and July 4 and wanted to switch to another date on or before July 8.
As for this Fourth of July weekend, “My advice is go buy hot dogs and stay home,” said Dean Headley, the co-author of the Wichita State University airline rankings.