Beginning as early as Thursday, domestic flights on carriers across the country began to struggle with a variety of factors, but that meltdown has continued and has not improved. Here’s what’s happening.
Rolling Delays and Cancellations Nationwide
Beginning on Thursday (to my knowledge) rolling delays and cancellations began to rise across carriers. As of Saturday night, here are the notable delays and cancellations by origin airport in the US (more than 5,000 total):
- Orlando – 30% Cancelled, 39% Delayed
- Miami – 16% Cancelled, 25% Delayed
- Tampa – 26% Cancelled, 28% Delayed
- Fort Lauderdale – 16% Cancelled, 33% Delayed
- Fort Myers – 29% Cancelled, 37% Delayed
- Atlanta – 8% Cancelled, 20% Delayed
- Clearwater – 16% Cancelled, 14% Delayed
- Baltimore/Washington – 12% Cancelled, 39% Delayed
- Reagan National – 9% Cancelled, 25% Delayed
- Detroit – 8% Cancelled, 18% Delayed
- Chicago O’Hare – 5% Cancelled, 25% Delayed
- New York JFK – 7% Cancelled, 26% Delayed
Here are the delays by carrier:
- Southwest – 14% Cancelled, 41% Delayed
- American Airlines – 12% Cancelled, 20% Delayed
- Delta Air Lines – 8% Cancelled, 20% Delayed
- JetBlue – 14% Cancelled, 52% Delayed
- Spirit Airlines – 26% Cancelled, 29% Delayed
- Allegiant Airlines – 21% Cancelled, 35% Delayed
- Alaska Airlines – 11% Cancelled, 13% Delayed
- United Airlines – 2% Cancelled, 24% Delayed
- Frontier Airlines – 10% Cancelled, 27% Delayed
- Republic Airlines – 3% Cancelled, 12% Delayed
This week I encountered my own delay/cancellation experience with United that lasted more 27 hours. There are a number of reasons for the current delay and cancellations that have had a dramatic effect on mostly the eastern seaboard but throughout the system. For those who may be travelling elsewhere in the US, flights throughout the country are dependent not only on the aircraft but also the crew, which is why an airport like Detroit is experiencing delays that are not weather related, for example.
There are a number of factors that contributed to what has been a disastrous week of domestic travel. In years past, none of these issues would have been substantial enough to warrant multi-day delays.
High Load Factor
One complicating factor is elevated load factors due to spring break travel. I know plenty of casual travellers that have reached out to me this weekend looking for help with cancelled flights. One friend was standing in line with American at Miami airport for rebooking when another person further up in the line reported waiting six hours for their new travel arrangements.
On social media, others claimed JetBlue violated tarmac delay rules by being on the aircraft for six hours. A family member was notified about an oversold Spirit flight before it was ultimately cancelled. In my own case, the United flights I was rebooked onto extended into a fourth flight after each of the prior three were oversold to the extent I was denied standby on the fourth until I insisted. Flights are generally very full which makes service recoveries harder.
There were some limited weather events in the south and in the northeast. One band that had me grounded on Thursday night was an issue of winds more than anything else. The pilot suggested they would attempt to fly south from Newark, then west, then north to Pittsburgh, but couldn’t be approved despite hours of delays (including a one-hour plus tarmac delay.) Thunderstorms in Florida made it hard to get anywhere, those storms were more substantial.
Spirit, United, JetBlue, and Southwest all mentioned weather issues and three of those four have significant operations in Florida.
Southwest reported a computer issue that caused problems across the network (41% of flights delayed) and explains its share of the delays.
United claimed both reasons to me during my delays and cancellations, first that it was weather delays from the inbound aircraft, then delays for my actual flight pattern. The next day, delays from the inbound caused a six-hour delay, but later notifications suggested a “computer” issue.
JetBlue adds a mix of ATC issues and thunderstorms but some tweets addressed tech issues as well.
Thunderstorm activity along the gulf coast, in addition to Air Traffic Control delays have caused operational disruptions. We recommend arriving at the original departure time and staying near the gate just in case any changes are made.
— JetBlue (@JetBlue) April 2, 2022
Pilot Shortage/Crew Availability
Alaska Airlines experienced a shortage of 120 pilots demonstrating against the airline as a negotiation tactic with their ongoing struggle over contracts.
JetBlue took nearly 30 flights off the schedule due to pilot shortages earlier this year, Republic stopped serving a number of gateways for the same reasons. Alaska was down 60 pilot pairs this weekend for labor action as noted, but weathered the storm surprisingly well compared with others.
When a flight is delayed, sometimes, it’s that the equipment (the airplane itself) isn’t ready or in place. However, even with more airplanes in hubs than are scheduled, without crews to fly, service, or operate the planes, the equipment is a moot point.
This is an issue that has been years in the making and is now rearing its head with issues everywhere. Crews (flight attendants, and pilots) are in demand and this is one reason why airplanes may be parked at the gate but aren’t going anywhere.
When Will Service Return to Normal?
The most concerning aspect is that in years past, even major weather disruptions could be rectified relatively quickly. However, it appears in this instance that those delays have rolled for many days. For example, those trying to fly Southwest from Fort Myers to, well, nearly anywhere, are blocked for days with no seats even offered.
There’s just one flight option to Chicago Midway under $600 one-way through Friday (six days out) and no options available at all until at least Wednesday.
Many sites showing options are displaying phantom space and fares that either change drastically at the payment screen or are already sold out but simply haven’t been updated.
From my searches, it looks like service won’t be able to recover until the middle of the coming week. This is a complete shock for most travellers who also struggle to find replacement alternatives like rental cars, or even flights from or to secondary airports in close proximity to their origin or destination. High hotel costs make that an even more significant issue.
I intended to fly out of Newark on Thursday night just after 6 PM on United but didn’t finally leave the ground until almost 9 PM the following day. Despite being no stranger to delays – it’s just part of air travel and happens to all of us. I had watched four other flights delay or cancel and nearly missed my final opportunity before spending yet another night. I was lucky to get out because others are finding, as I did, that rental cars are unavailable or priced too high, and carriers across the country are all experiencing the same trouble.
Some of these issues align. Tech issues were loosely cited by JetBlue and Southwest, and again by United in at least one communication regarding my flight. The airports that are most severely problematic are in areas where weather disturbances were a major factor. However, it would be foolish to ignore the lack of elasticity in the system at the moment due to crew availability for airlines to recover from these challenges in a way we haven’t seen before.
What do you think? Did you travel this weekend?