Isabella Courchesne was about to enjoy an Italian sub at New York’s LaGuardia Airport when she got an alert familiar to many traveling for July Fourth: Her flight was delayed.
Courchesne was trying to spend a weekend of grilling and shopping with family in Cleveland. She stayed patient after seeing about 15 flight cancellations on the airport’s departures board before her own Delta Air Lines flight was canceled and rescheduled for 24 hours later. A $15 food voucher from the airline was nice, she said, but the 21-year-old was still left wondering if she would get home – or if she would be stuck snacking on candy in LaGuardia.
“Nothing at LaGuardia Airport costs $15, but it was better than nothing,” Courchesne, who works at a D.C. consulting firm on K Street, said. “I went and got a bunch of Jolly Ranchers. I figured $15 would have covered three family-sized packs, and that’s exactly what happened.”
As tens of millions of Americans are expected to fly or drive for the Fourth of July weekend, many are facing summer travel that has been slowed down because of flight delays and cancellations, and made more expensive by high fuel prices.
An estimated 47.9 million travelers in the United States between Friday and Monday represents an increase of almost 4%, compared with last year, according to AAA – approaching the level of summer travel not seen in the country since before the coronavirus pandemic. While the bulk of those travelers will be on the road, more than 3.5 million are expected to be on airliners; that is, if their flights don’t get delayed or canceled.
More than 2,800 flights within, into or out of the United States were delayed as of Saturday afternoon, according to the flight-tracking website FlightAware. Southwest Airlines showed 477 flights delayed on Saturday, accounting for 13% of its total trips, data shows. American Airlines showed 390 flights delayed on Saturday, accounting for about 12% of its total trips. Delta was at 296 delayed flights, good for about 10% of the airline’s trips, according to FlightAware. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport led the way in Saturday delays among U.S. airports, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
More than 600 flights on Saturday had been canceled, according to FlightAware. American, Delta and United Airlines lead the way among U.S. carriers for Saturday cancellations.
The holiday disruptions come at a time when the airline industry has pledged a renewed focus on reliability. While weather has always been an issue for airlines, staffing shortages during the pandemic have further hampered carriers’ ability to recover from delays. Several unions representing airline workers have spoken out and held demonstrations to bring attention to the strain on employees. On Thursday, more than 1,200 Delta pilots and staff staged demonstrations at several airports stretching from New York to Los Angeles to demand higher pay.
Analysts with the travel booking app Hopper are projecting domestic airfare averaging out to $437 per round-trip ticket, a spike of 45%, compared with 2019. Some of the most popular U.S. destinations this weekend include Las Vegas, Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles and Miami, Hopper said.
“The volume of travelers we expect to see over Independence Day is a definite sign that summer travel is kicking into high gear,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president for AAA Travel, said in a news release. “People are ready for a break and despite things costing more, they are finding ways to still take that much needed vacation.”
Yet the issues with air travel continue, despite U.S. airlines’ receiving billions in pandemic relief funds to keep workers on the job. When Americans were ready to fly again, the expectation was that airlines would be ready for them, especially during a time that has been dubbed by some as the year of “revenge travel.” More than 2.46 million people were screened last Sunday by Transportation Security Administration officers, the highest volume since Feb. 11, 2020.
But tens of thousands of combined delays and cancellations marred travelers’ celebrating the busy Juneteenth and Father’s Day weekends last month. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have blamed each other for the air travel disruption.
The discussion surrounding air travel efficiency heightened this week when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Transportation Department to “fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for every flight cancellation they know can’t be fully staffed.”
“The American people are sick of airlines ripping them off, canceling flights at the last minute and delaying flights for hours on end,” Sanders tweeted.
Buttigieg, who has called on the airline industry “to deliver” for the American people, recounted on Saturday about his own connecting flight getting canceled on Friday. In a series of tweets, Buttigieg said that travelers should be “entitled to a cash refund when your flight is canceled.”
“At first, the airline offered 2,500 miles, which I estimate is worth about 30 bucks. But I claimed the refund for the canceled portion instead, and it worked out to be $112.07,” Buttigieg wrote. “Airlines offer miles as compensation for some travel issues, and you can often negotiate on this. That’s between you and the airline. But you are entitled to cash refunds for canceled flights – that’s a requirement that we will continue to enforce.”
While airline passengers face issues with reliability, millions traveling by road are still grappling with what they have to pay at the pump.
The national average price for a gallon of gas is $4.82 as of Saturday, according to AAA, which is down slightly from Friday’s average of $4.84. Ten states and the District of Columbia have average has prices of $5 or more. At an average of $6.25 a gallon, California still leads the nation in fuel cost.
AAA estimates that 42 million people will be driving this weekend. Even with the high fuel prices, the agency notes that Americans might feel more in control of their arrival by driving instead of flying.
“Traveling by car does provide a level of comfort and flexibility that people may be looking for given the recent challenges with flying,” Twidale said.
Courchesne admits she’s one of the lucky ones, and not just because Delta helped fund her Jolly Rancher fix. After initially being told her travel would be delayed by about 28 hours, she said a Delta help-desk employee was able to book her on a late-Friday-night flight to get her to Cleveland. She’s looking forward to spending time with her grandmother and celebrating some family birthdays, but it won’t last long. She’s already thinking about her return flight to Washington on Monday – one that includes another layover at LaGuardia.
“I’m trying to make the fireworks in D.C.,” she said. “I’m hoping it will be a little smoother getting back, but I’m not really planning on it.”
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