It’s a scenario most airline passengers have become far too familiar with since the pandemic: You’re getting ready to head to the airport—or maybe already at the gate—when suddenly the airline cancels your flight, seemingly out of nowhere. The reason? Operational issues.
This hazy mix of problems, which can range from too few crew members to bad weather to plane shortages, plagued airlines last spring and summer as they endeavored to add back more flights to their schedules. Unfortunately for travelers, it looks like air carriers’ operational issues have continued into 2022, with thousands of cancellations and delays becoming a near-daily occurrence. On April 14, for example, there were 7,579 delays within, into, or out of U.S. airports and 602 cancellations, according to tracking site FlightAware. Experts say they expect flight disruptions will last well into summer.
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“There’s a perfect storm of issues right now,” says Kerry Tan, Ph.D. and associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. “First off, airlines are getting unlucky with inclement weather, which keeps planes and their crews grounded. Given the weather delays, the flight crew are not able to get themselves and the planes to the next stop, which causes a cascading effect on delays. To top it all off, airlines are facing pilot shortages, which makes it harder to replace the displaced pilots and creates an even worse logistical nightmare.”
This cascading effect, according to Tan, means that a flight in Chicago, where it might be perfectly sunny, could be canceled because a weather delay in Florida prevents the crew from arriving on time. Since there’s not enough staff to have extra crew on-hand, the airline must nix the flight. “The problem is that [airlines] still have a shortage of employees, most notably pilots who take longer to train up and can only fly one type of aircraft at a time,” says Brett Snyder, airline expert and founder of Cranky Concierge. “So there is this logjam that they are still working to clear, and it means when things go wrong, there is less ability to recover easily.”
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And a shortage of pilots is not an easy obstacle to clear. Airlines are recruiting more cockpit crew, with some offering better pay and perks to entice pilots. “Some airlines are offering hiring bonuses, and offering bonuses for flight attendants and pilots to work peak holiday weekends,” Harteveldt says.
But those are short-term fixes. To solve the shortages for the long run, some carriers are taking drastic steps, like offering to buy other airlines. “One reason JetBlue is interested in acquiring Spirit Airlines is to help expand its group of pilots to help JetBlue grow as an airline,” says Harteveldt. Airlines have also launched their own flight training programs to ensure they have their own pipeline of new pilots. “Recently United, American, JetBlue, and a few others have started their own in-house pilot academies or partnerships,” Harteveldt says. In addition to offering scholarships, grants, and subsidies to make training more affordable, the academies also focus on outreach to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community to help diversify who’s in the cockpit.
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As for this summer, most carriers are doing what they can to minimize snarls down the line. “Airlines are going to make adjustments now ahead of summer so that they build in more buffer into their system,” says Harteveldt.
JetBlue says it’s already reduced its May flight capacity by about eight to 10 percent and expects to make similar cuts to the rest of its summer schedule. “By reducing our flight schedule for the summer and continuing to hire new crewmembers, we hope to have more breathing room in the system to help ease some of the recent delays and cancellations that we’ve seen in the industry,” Derek Dombrowski, JetBlue’s manager of corporate communications, said in an emailed statement.
But that just might not be enough to eliminate widespread disruptions. “When there's a normal summer weather event—say a line of storms rolling through New York—it will be harder for the airlines to recover and more people will be impacted by cancellations,” says Snyder. “I expect that to continue to happen through the summer. Something that seems fairly normal can have an outsized impact these days.”
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While most of the disruptions are out of passengers’ control, there are a few steps travelers can take to help themselves. First, if you’re flying for a time-sensitive event, like a wedding or cruise, Harteveldt advises padding your travel schedule with an extra day or two of buffer time to help absorb any flight delays. It’s also important to get your summer flights booked as soon as possible. “This will be a hunger-games-like summer with people trying to find affordable flights,” Harteveldt says, adding that factors like higher travel demand, less airline capacity, higher jet fuel costs, and higher labor costs are all coalescing to make airfares both expensive and quick to sell out.
Other than that, the best thing you can do is to “bring your patience,” Snyder says. If you do get delayed or canceled, “you can always try to better your situation by using all available channels. If you're at the airport, stand in line to talk to an agent. At the same time, call reservations, use Twitter, and look in the airline’s app to see if they have other options,” he says. “You might as well try everything you can.”