Jun 30, 2022 - Economy

The airlines already know Fourth of July will be a mess

Illustration of a rolling suitcase taped to a propelling rocket firework.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

Delta Air Lines already knows it will face "operational challenges" over the Fourth of July weekend, so it's trying to get customers to rejigger their plans ahead of time by offering free rebooking.

Why it matters: It's a sign of how bad the state of air travel is today that airlines have to beg their passengers to change their vacation plans. But at least Delta is trying to be proactive in the face of cascading issues that are disrupting air travel worldwide.

What's happening: Delta, some of whose pilots are picketing at major U.S. airports today, is issuing an unusual systemwide travel waiver for July 1-4, which aims to spread out the crush of holiday travel by letting customers rebook their trips for free to avoid the busiest days.

  • Like other airlines, Delta had already suspended change fees, typically around $200.
  • The new waiver, which applies to customers flying anywhere this weekend, means they don't have to pay the fare difference for a new flight, either (as long as passengers keep the same origin and destination).
  • The travel window is tight, however: The waiver is only good for rebooked trips completed by July 8. It's not a free pass to reschedule your travel plans to later this year.

The intrigue: There's a lot of finger-pointing between the airline industry and the federal government, which is responsible for air traffic control through the Federal Aviation Administration.

  • Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sees a "stressed" air traffic control system as the leading cause of flight disruptions in the U.S., he told staff in a webinar June 29 viewed by Airline Weekly.
  • "This is about a partnership and the government needs to step up," Bastian said. "It should get better, but this is going to be a constraint that’s going to stay with us for some time."
  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the FAA, blamed airlines' downsizing, despite $54 billion in federal aid, during the pandemic. "The majority of cancellations, and the majority of delays, have nothing to do with air traffic control staffing," he told NBC Nightly News on June 28.

The big picture: Given the choice between paying higher gas prices or rolling the dice on air travel, more people are choosing to drive if they can.

  • Even with gas averaging around $5 a gallon, a record 42 million people are expected to travel 50 miles or more by car this Independence Day, according to AAA.
  • Widespread flight delays and cancellations are a likely factor for the increased car travel, AAA said. The share of people traveling by air will be the lowest since 2011.
  • "People are ready for a break, and despite things costing more, they are finding ways to still take that much-needed vacation," said Paula Twidale, senior vice president, AAA Travel.

If you're hitting the road, expect the worst traffic jams on Thursday and Friday afternoon, says AAA.

Air travelers, meanwhile, should plan ahead and remain flexible, advises Nick Ewen, director of content at The Points Guy, a travel advisory website that offers a lot more tips here.

  • "My overarching message is: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and ultimately expect something in between. It probably is not going to be the worst case scenario, but also it's probably not going to be a smooth trip."

The bottom line: There are no quick fixes for the airline industry's current woes — which range from staffing shortages to cascading weather delays — so remember to pack your patience.

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