Mar 23, 2023 - Economy

Airlines' summer stress test

Illustration of a travel postcard with an airplane appearing in the text of a scream.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Summer will test just how well airlines have recovered from the chaos of this past holiday season.

The big picture: Summer travel and the holidays are airlines’ biggest stress tests. The holidays were a nightmare, as Southwest Airlines entered full meltdown, and a host of other challenges could complicate summer travel, too.

By the numbers: Just 69.1% of domestic U.S. flights departed on time in December 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Southwest's struggles dragged down the average for all carriers.

  • That figure is generally between 75%-80% in a typical month, albeit with predictable dips in the busy — and often meteorologically challenging — summer and winter travel seasons.

Zoom in: Denver International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport posted some of the country's worst on-time performance rates in December, at 57.4%, 61.7% and 66.4%, respectively.

What we're watching: All indications so far suggest Southwest has recovered nicely since December — but the industry is grappling with a fresh set of challenges.

The busier travel season will also be a test for pilots, air traffic controllers and other stakeholders after a string of alarming incidents in recent months.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration issued a “safety call to alert” Wednesday to remind pilots, airlines and others of best practices for safe flying, following a string of alarming incidents in recent months.
  • Also on Wednesday, a key Senate committee indefinitely delayed a vote on President Biden’s pick to run the FAA amid mounting opposition to his candidate, Phil Washington.
  • The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since March 2022.
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