The number of Americans flying this summer could surpass a pre-pandemic high since 2019. That would be great news for airlines, but it could also cause a backlash against the industry if it fails to keep up with demand and delays or cancels thousands of flights.
The recovery from the pandemic has been punctuated by several major travel incidents, stranding millions of travelers and angering lawmakers and regulators. In recent months, the Department of Transportation has proposed calling for more transparency about airline fees and requiring companies to fully compensate people whose flights are delayed or cancelled.
A major misstep could increase political pressure on lawmakers and regulators to take a harder line against airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs air traffic and has also suffered notable failures in recent years.
Said William J. McGee, a senior fellow at the American Economic Freedoms Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation in the airline business: “I don’t think they can have a summer like they did last year.” “This pattern that they followed last year of canceling flights at the last minute, in many cases due to crew shortages, is unacceptable. They wouldn’t be able to do it again, I don’t think so, not without some serious repercussions.”
Industry executives and Federal Aviation Administration officials say they have made changes after recent turmoil and crashes that should make air travel less chaotic and more enjoyable this summer than it has been in recent years.
Why have airlines struggled so much?
Almost every major airline and air traffic control system has suffered a collapse at some point during the recovery from the pandemic.
Early on, when coronavirus vaccines were still being developed and tested and travel restrictions kept people from traveling, carriers encouraged thousands of employees to make purchases or retire early even though the federal government had provided airlines with billions of dollars to pay employees. When air travel quickly rebounded, airlines, like any other, struggled to hire and train staff, including pilots, flight attendants, and baggage handlers.
Even when companies stopped hiring, airlines remained particularly vulnerable to disruptions. During the pre-2022 holidays, the novel coronavirus infected large numbers of crew members, exacerbating problems caused by inclement weather, and leading to thousands of flight cancellations nationwide.
Another problem: the aviation system uses technology and ways of doing business that were developed years or decades ago and show their age. Around Christmas last year, Southwest Airlines struggled to weather nasty storms due to inadequate equipment, software and inadequate crew scheduling practices, stranding millions of travelers. Weeks later, the FAA briefly grounded all flights from taking off nationwide after a contractor deleted a file in a dated pilot alert system.
The industry has introduced changes to reduce disruptions, including hiring more staff, reducing the number of flights and adding more flexibility to their networks. It seems to help: Until early May, weather was by far the main cause of flight delays, and cancellations were more limited, compared to 2019.
What will summer look like?
So far this year, air travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 2.1 million people passing through airport checkpoints each day, about as many as during the same period in 2019, according to TSA data.
But traffic may soon surpass even 2019 volumes. Memorial Day is the start of the summer travel season and is expected to be the third busiest in more than two decades, with 5.4 percent more people planning to fly than the same weekend before the pandemic, according to For AAA Travel Club.
Dozens of major airports are also expected to see double the traffic growth this summer, compared to last summer, according to the Airline Trade Association of America. That list includes airports that serve major cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, and Denver. It also has six major airports for United Airlines, five for Delta Air Lines, and four for American Airlines.
What does the FAA do?
To keep flights running smoothly this summer, the FAA is relaxing rules at some of the busiest airports.
These rules require airlines to use or lose the take-off and landing slots they are allotted. But by relaxing that requirement from mid-May to mid-September, the FAA hopes to encourage airlines to fly larger and smaller planes without fear of losing their positions. The policy applies to the three major airports serving New York City, as well as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The FAA said it relaxed the rules in part because of a staffing shortage at the air traffic control center that serves New York’s airports and employs only half the target number of air traffic controllers. Without the change, the FAA said flight delays could increase as much as 45 percent this summer compared to last summer. The problems could reverberate across the country because many flights connect in New York.
The FAA also said it has taken steps to improve flight capacity around space launches, which has increased, especially in Florida, but also in California and Texas. In early May, the agency announced that it had opened 169 new routes, primarily at high elevations and along the East Coast, to ease congestion.
Some airlines say they have prepared for the summer by planning to use bigger planes, hiring more staff and watching closely for early signs of turbulence.
At the FAA’s request, several major airlines have agreed to take fewer flights, but with larger planes, at some of the busiest airports. United, for example, said it plans to reduce the number of daily flights from its Newark hub by about 30 than in the summer of 2019. But because it uses larger planes, the airline said it will offer 5 percent more seats in the New York area.
“We desperately want to fly a bigger schedule,” said Patrick Coyle, United’s senior vice president of global network planning and alliances. “But what matters most to us is running a reliable process.”
Other airlines also plan to use larger aircraft on certain routes, a practice that has accelerated in recent years and is known as “upgrading”. Airlines have marked about 5 percent more flights within the United States this summer than last summer, and there will be about 10 percent more seats available, according to Cirium, a provider of flight data. Compared to the summer of 2019, this summer airlines will fly 10 percent fewer flights, but they will offer 3 percent more seats.
The industry has also vigorously recruited and trained new employees. As of March, airlines employed nearly 487,000 full-time employees, the most since October 2001, according to an analysis of federal data by American Airlines, the industry group. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said recently that the airline has terminated a hiring period.
“The employment rates we are in right now are just normal employment rates of natural decline, not of the massive increase we would have needed to go through to get work back,” Bastien told Wall Street analysts on a conference call in April. “And so we can not only deemphasize going out and hiring people, we can also take the people who have done the training and put them back to work.”
Airlines have also tried to get smarter at spotting disruptions before they lead to mass delays and cancellations. After the winter break debacle, Southwest said it would make better use of real-time data to monitor the health of its network. American said it has also put in place a system called HEAT, which will allow it to quickly delay and cancel flights in response to mounting problems while reducing the number of affected customers.