" "

The 4th of July travel surge is putting airlines – and passengers – to the test

Travelers at LaGuardia Airport in New York on June 30, 2022.

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

The July 4 bank holiday weekend will put airlines to the test after a chaotic spring angered travelers and drew sharp criticism from Washington.

Already this year, the rate of flight cancellations and delays in June is higher than before the pandemic due to bad weather and staff shortages. And airlines and federal officials have been scrambling to ease frustrations ahead of the busy holiday weekend.

This week Delta said travelers can change flights for free without paying a fare difference if they can travel through July 8 outside of the busy July 1-4 weekend. JetBlue Airways introduced attendance bonuses for flight attendants this spring to ensure solid staffing levels. American Airlines regional carrier Envoy is offering pilots triple pay for extra shifts in July.

And airlines like Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines recently cut their schedules to give themselves more leeway.

The moves come as passenger numbers are near pre-pandemic levels while fares have skyrocketed. According to estimates by fare tracker Hopper, around 2.6 million people could leave US airports every weekend.

Travelers have largely endured the higher fares after being locked down in the pandemic for two years. That’s a boon for airlines, which more than offset increases in fuel costs. But flying has given many passengers headaches.

Almost 176,000 flights arrived at least 15 minutes late between June 1 and June 29. That’s more than 23% of scheduled flights, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. And more than 20,000 – almost 3% – have been cancelled.

That’s an increase of 20% in delayed flights and 2% in cancellations over the same period in 2019.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have fallen out over who is to blame. The airlines blame bad weather, their own staff shortages and staffing problems at state air traffic control for the disruptions.

For its part, the FAA has called for steps by airlines to lay off tens of thousands of workers through takeovers, though he received $54 billion in taxpayer payrolls during the pandemic as part of a bailout package that banned layoffs.

The political pressure on the airlines is increasing. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly urged airlines to ensure they are prepared following the recent spate of cancellations and delays, including one that affected a flight the minister had scheduled.

Lawmakers have also pushed for greater scrutiny of airlines. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) said this week airlines should be fined $55,000 per passenger if they cancel flights they can’t staff.

On Thursday, FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other senior agency officials held a phone call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency’s own use of overtime to replenish its facilities, traffic and route schedules occupy, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call came in addition to regular planning discussions with airlines.