Jun 23, 2022 - Economy

Summer travel mess: Flight cancellations pile up as airlines struggle to keep pace

Illustration of an airport control tower with a giant sweat drop

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Airlines are crying uncle. Reeling from staffing shortages, they are responding to a sudden upswing in demand by cutting flights and reducing their commitments to regional airports.

Why it matters: Americans are eager to travel again, and regional airports make it easier to reach some of the nation's far-flung hotspots.

Driving the news: American Airlines said Wednesday it plans to end service to Islip, New York; Ithaca, New York; Toledo, Ohio; and Dubuque, Iowa.

  • And United Airlines is cutting 50 flights a day from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey — a major hub for New York City area travelers.
  • 30 airports have lost "at least half the departures they had in 2019," the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
  • JetBlue and Spirit Airlines previously announced cuts to their summer schedules.

What they're saying: "The big loser, if you will, in the whole shakeout are folks who either live in small communities or are traveling to small destinations," Scott Keyes, founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, tells Axios.

By the numbers: Airlines canceled 793,018 flights in North America in the first 23 weeks of the year, up 21% from the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, according to flight data tracker OAG.

  • There were 5,883 delays on Wednesday alone on flights within, into or out of the U.S., according to FlightAware.
  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last week warned that his department could pursue enforcement action against airlines that don't adhere to consumer protection standards.

State of play: Airlines say they're straining to keep up in part because they don't have enough staff to deal with a surge in leisure travelers.

  • "I really want to underscore how drastic of a step it is to cut flights from a summer schedule," Keyes says. "It would be akin to Walmart saying we’re not going to open on Black Friday. To see them trimming the schedule in these summer months really underscores what a difficult position they’re in."

Yes, but: The airline industry had 751,165 employees as of April, according to the Department of Transportation, up from a pandemic low of 673,663 in November 2020.

  • That's the second-highest monthly total in the last 21 years, trailing only February 2020’s 753,382.

Keep in mind: TSA is also straining to keep up with the increase in travelers as it deals with the sort of labor shortages that other employers are grappling with.

  • "It’s just an ongoing train wreck," Keyes says.

The bottom line: Brace yourself for travel disruption this summer.

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