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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wave of airline flight delays this year mostly self-inflicted

Travelers sit under a departures flight board at John F. Kennedy International Airport int New York on July 1, 2022.  (Bloomberg )
By Alan Levin and Mary Schlangenstein Bloomberg

The share of U.S. flight delays caused by airlines, as opposed to weather or air traffic control, has surged to the highest level on record, reflecting carriers’ struggle in the post-COVID rebound.

Through April, airlines triggered about 58% of late flights in 2022, surpassing those that were tardy due to storms, the government’s air-traffic system and security glitches, according to data reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Airlines acknowledge struggling with a “COVID hangover” as demand for travel surged and they attempted to bring on and retrain employees to replace those who had gone on leave or left.

But they say they have no incentive to delay flights, and that factors such as bad weather and similar issues with the nation’s air-traffic system have also contributed.

“Our entire nation is still coming out of COVID and coping with COVID, and so there are plenty of challenges to go around,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of the trade group Airlines for America.

“We all have issues. That’s why we need to work together and collaborate on solutions.”

Major carriers and their regional partners were responsible for 166,056 flights that were late by at least 15 minutes, compared with 105,773 attributed to weather, congestion and other issues in the air-traffic system, the next-highest cause.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly called on the airlines to address delays and cancellations.

“We’ve seen movement in the right direction” he said last week on Fox News Sunday.

The agency declined to comment on the delay causes.

In some cases, airlines intentionally delay flights to ensure passengers make connections and to limit broader disruptions, Pinkerton said.

Internal airline data shows the system has been functioning more smoothly in recent weeks, she said.

All six of the largest U.S. carriers have trimmed their summer schedules to reduce disruptions.

“All of this turmoil is unprecedented, but we’re coming out of it because of the actions that we’re taking,” Pinkerton said.

And it isn’t only in the U.S. In the U.K., London’s Heathrow Airport imposed passenger limits because it couldn’t handle the surge in summer travelers.

Delta Air Lines used an empty wide-body plane to fly lost luggage to back to the U.S.

Carriers have been saying for months that staffing issues at FAA air-traffic facilities have contributed to the problem and the data indicates there’s some truth to that assertion.

Delays attributed to the “National Aviation System” – a broad category that includes weather issues and the Federal Aviation Administration system’s capacity limits – at Miami International Airport grew to 3,668 through April this year, almost four times higher than the same period in 2019.

Florida is one of the few areas of the country experiencing higher flight levels than before the pandemic and suffered unusually bad weather this year, the FAA has said.

The agency is trying to boost staffing at an air-traffic center in Jacksonville, Florida, which controls most flights into and out of the state and is short of controllers.

United Airlines on July 6 blamed the FAA for much of its flight problems in the last four months.

DOT data shows that – at least at its Newark, New Jersey, hub – more flights were delayed by the air-traffic system through April than by carrier actions.

Much of Newark’s delays are the result of construction, and the FAA responded with a sharply worded statement accusing United of using misleading information.

DOT data nationally showed United’s issues had caused thousands more delays through April than weather or air-traffic congestion.

United declined to comment.

More broadly, the FAA’s air-traffic system has been performing better across the nation this year than historic averages, despite rapid growth in traffic and the lingering effects of the battle with the pandemic, according to the DOT data.

Historically, delays attributed to the aviation system have hovered slightly above those caused by airlines, but that trend has reversed since the pandemic.

The proportion of delays through April this year – 37% of late flights – is the lowest recorded for the period since the DOT began collecting the data in June 2003.

Cancellations, which often cause more disruptions to travelers than flight delays, reached 76,776 through April or 3.6% of the 2.2 million total operations.

That’s below the number recorded in early 2020 when the pandemic crippled the industry, but significantly higher than historic averages.

Compared to delays, airlines were responsible for a smaller share of cancellations, 36%, but the total was up by more than 11,000 compared to the same period in 2019, according to the DOT data.

Weather caused the majority of scrubbed flights, while air-traffic issues led to only about 5%.

The severity of delays is also up sharply. Airline actions led to 11.8 million minutes of delays through April, more than twice the 4.9 million minutes attributed to the aviation system.

The time planes were delayed due to airline actions was by far the most ever recorded during the January-April period.

Delayed flights for which there was no cause were not included in the Bloomberg review.

JetBlue Airways Corp. had the worst performance among large airlines.

Almost 40% of the carriers’ flights were late through April and it was responsible for nearly twice as many delays as all other causes combined.

In spite of what the JetBlue reported to the DOT, it insisted that the bulk of delays and cancellations were due to air-traffic and weather.

“We made the decision in April to reduce flying by more than 10% this summer so that we can more reliably operate our schedule with our current staffing and other constraints on the national aviation system,” said Derek Dombrowski, a JetBlue spokesman.