Ahead of the July Fourth weekend, airlines are facing a wave of concern over flight cancellations — and new pressure from Washington to make sure they’re not leaving travelers in the lurch.
Wednesday saw more than 2,000 cancellations in a single day, according to FlightAware data, with uncertainty continuing into the holiday travel season. The surge in canceled flights is particularly bad because it’s happening across all airlines, straining the system’s capacity and leaving many travelers unable to reach their destinations. A Washington Post report on Tuesday detailed the human cost of those cancellations, with travelers sleeping on airport floors or canceling trips altogether.
A deeper look at the data shows cancellations really have increased in recent months, peaking in January with more than 33,000 cancellations in a single month, more than double the equivalent figure from 2019. As holiday travel heats up, many are concerned that the summer’s cancellation numbers will be even higher.
The numbers are still well below the pandemic-driven peak in March and April of 2020, which saw more than 100,000 cancellations per month. But while those cancellations were driven by quarantine rules and a broader falloff in demand, the more recent problems are caused by a shortfall in supply.
Staffing is a particular issue, as airlines struggle to replace the thousands of pilots who took buyouts in 2020 as the industry responded to the pandemic. With those pilots out of the workforce, airlines have had difficulty staffing their planes — and have often had to cancel flights when unable to arrange a crew. As the shortage intensifies, some industry analysts have proposed easing the requirements for pilot certification — including the rule requiring 1,500 hours of flight time before piloting a commercial aircraft.
Politicians have been vocal in demanding fewer cancellations — often while invoking the generous terms of the industry’s $54 billion pandemic bailout.
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman called on the White House to fine airlines $27,500 for every flight that’s canceled due to known staffing shortages. “Government has a responsibility to hold these airlines accountable,” Fetterman said in a statement. “Taxpayers saved them and now it’s their turn to hold up their end of the deal.”
When asked about Fetterman’s proposal, the Department of Transportation pointed to its ongoing enforcement actions to ensure airlines honor their refund policies. “We share the expectation that, when Americans buy an airline ticket, they will get where they need to go safely, affordably, and reliably,” said department spokesperson Benjamin Halle. “We will continue to work with airlines to meet that expectation, but also not hesitate in using enforcement actions to hold them accountable.”
Criticism has also come from the Republicans in Congress, as a group from the House Oversight Committee wrote in a blistering letter to Secretary Buttigieg. “Committee Republicans are concerned the Department does not have a serious plan to address deteriorating flight schedules,” the letter reads, “which will be made even more painfully clear to Americans across the country as their flights continue to be delayed or cancelled.
Update 3:38PM ET: Added letter from House Oversight.