Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
The 4th of July bank holiday weekend got off to a booming start as airport crowds surpassed pre-pandemic 2019 numbers.
Travelers in the United States experienced hundreds of canceled flights and several thousand delays on Friday, similar to earlier this week.
Patricia Carreno arrived at Los Angeles International Airport with friends, only to find that her Alaska Airlines flight to Mazatlan, Mexico, had been cancelled.
“We’re probably going to go to Mexico — to Tijuana, to the border — and just fly from there,” she said.
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.4 million travelers at airport checkpoints on Thursday, up 17% from the same Friday before July 4, 2019. U.S. air travel is likely to set a pandemic-era record at least once over the weekend.
Traffic on the highway could also be heavy.
AAA predicts nearly 48 million people will drive at least 50 miles or more from home over the weekend, down slightly from 2019. AAA says car trips will set a record even if the national average price of gas is around $5.
Holiday travel has bounced back this year, and that means particularly large crowds on three-day bank holiday weekends.
With many flights sold out over the July 4th weekend, airlines will struggle to find seats for passengers like Carreno, whose flights will be cancelled. Airlines urged customers to check the status of their flight before heading to the airport.
If you’re already at the airport when your flight is cancelled, “it’s time to put your multitasking skills to the test,” says Sebastian Modak, editor-in-chief of travel guide publisher Lonely Planet.
Modak advised going directly to the airline’s helpdesk, checking the app on your phone, and calling the airline’s customer service — an international number might be answered sooner than a US number for airlines that have both. He said driving, or bus or train, are better options for shorter journeys.
“There’s no getting around the fact that this is going to be a summer of travel delays, cancellations and frustrations,” he said.
Airlines had canceled about 500 US flights and delayed another 5,100 on the East Coast as of early Friday night, FlightAware said. Isolated thunderstorms in the New York City area made it likely the numbers would rise. From June 22 to Wednesday, at least 600 flights were canceled and between 4,000 and 7,000 were delayed per day, the tracking service said.
Airline executives blame the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs the country’s air traffic control system, for the recent spate of canceled flights, but Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg denies that claim.
Passengers get caught in the middle.
Mari Ismail, who flew to Atlanta on Friday, said it took a long time to check in and get through security before her flight from Baltimore.
“I got right to my gate when they started boarding, so it was a very long process,” she said.
Jordane Jeffrey said she booked a return trip from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Monday the holiday.
“I hope there won’t be any delays because I’m working that night,” she said.
Airlines sometimes overbook flights in anticipation that some passengers will not show up. When there are more passengers than seats, airlines offer cash or travel vouchers to people willing to catch the next flight.
Earlier this week, an Inc. magazine columnist wrote that Delta flight attendants offered $10,000 in cash to people getting off a plane to take off in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Delta spokesman Anthony Black would neither confirm nor deny the journalist’s account, but noted that in 2017 the airline increased the compensation agents can offer in such cases to $9,950. The move followed a PR nightmare at United Airlines when airport officials bled and dragged a 69-year-old doctor off a sold-out plane — a case that led to a lawsuit, a confidential settlement and late-night TV jokes about United’s customer service led.
Even as holidaymakers crowd airports and airplanes, total passenger numbers have not fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to a drop in business and international travel. The TSA screened 11% fewer people in June than in the same month of 2019.
Thursday marked only the 11th time since the pandemic began that the TSA screened more people than it did on the same day in 2019, and only the second time since February.
Airlines could almost certainly carry more passengers if they had enough staff. Many US airlines have cut their summer flight schedules after poor weather, flight delays and a lack of enough employees over Memorial Day weekend led to widespread cancellations.
In the early days of the pandemic, as air travel plummeted and airline revenue dried up, airlines paid thousands of workers to lay off. They’ve recently hired, but it takes time to train pilots, which are particularly scarce.
Now, airlines competing for key employees are offering double-digit pay rises for pilots, who find themselves leveraged in negotiations for new contracts.