Last Memorial Day weekend was the inaugural mess in a summer of air travel chaos. With significantly more Americans expected to head to airports this holiday weekend, the strained system is facing its first big seasonal crush. Are travelers in for another hellacious summer?
Some experts anticipate a smoother season for air travelers.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we won't see a repeat of the flight disruption fiasco that kicked off summer 2022," said Scott Keyes, founder of travel site Going, formerly Scott's Cheap Flights.
Keyes puts his optimism down to "preventive measures" airlines are taking: Publishing more realistic schedules, building in buffers to limit cascading disruptions, trimming flights out New York's three busy airports and flying larger planes to still meet high demand.
The number of air travelers over the holiday weekend is expected to be up by 11% over last year, according to AAA's forecast, and up more than 5% over 2019 pre-pandemic volume.
Remember what pre-pandemic summer travel looked like?
"Summer has always been a period of discontent," said airline industry analyst Bob Mann, founder of R.W. Mann & Company, who noted that's been the case for him whether he was an airline executive or a passenger. It's a period of peak demand and resource-limited supply, he said.
One of biggest limitations right now: air traffic control staffing. The Federal Aviation Administration is about 3,000 controllers short of ideal staffing levels.
That might result in trouble for passengers.
"Full flights, hot cabins, everyone sharing an armrest, fewer flights than 2019 and even fewer flights in the Northeast due to FAA constraints mean limited options to re-accommodate passengers from delayed and canceled flights, meaning more passenger trip interruptions and disruptions," Mann said.
The Northeast isn't the only trouble spot. Recent CNN reporting revealed the extent and impact of understaffing at a key facility in Jacksonville, Florida, that handles airplane traffic into Florida and the Caribbean.
"Right now, about two out of every 10 ATC positions in the US are unfilled," said Kathleen Bangs, a former airline pilot and spokesperson for flight tracking site FlightAware. "You really need some of your most experienced controllers to man the busiest airspace."
And pilots are fed up - they're negotiating for more pay and threatening strikes.
Yet airlines and regulators have taken steps to ease pressure points, plus unruliness among passengers is trending downward. Add a lot of luck with the weather, and perhaps there's a better summer ahead.
First, the favorable tea leaves:
The FAA has rearranged East Coast flight routes to mitigate expected delays because of air traffic controller shortages, and airlines have trimmed their schedules at New York airports to account for the shortages. The FAA has also adopted new guidelines for commercial space launches that could otherwise add pressure to already-strained airspace in places such as Florida.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics data says that airlines have about 48,000 more employees than they did at this time last year, a sign that the staffing ramp up from massive cutbacks brought on by the pandemic is finally gaining steam.
"The combination of more trained employees on the job and less flights overall has helped avoid any airline meltdowns so far for 2023," said Bangs.
Mike Boyd, president of aviation forecasting and consulting firm Boyd Group International, doesn't foresee much trouble with airline operations this summer.
"I think it's going to be kind of a non-event. I really do. I don't think it's going to be anything for consumers really to worry about," Boyd said.
Air traffic control could be a different story.
Air traffic controllers are key
The FAA has warned that a controller shortage will affect travel this summer, particularly for New York's three major airports. And on Sunday and Monday, a controller shortage led to flight disruptions at Denver International Airport.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby cited the shortage of air traffic controllers as his top concern heading into summer.
"This is the issue that limits the operations around the country. It's by far the biggest issue," Kirby told CNN's Poppy Harlow on CNN This Morning.
Controller shortages caused thousands of flight disruptions last summer. But many thousands more - the majority of disruptions - were caused by the airlines' operational challenges, which ranged from staff shortages to bad weather.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke to the controller understaffing issue at a news conference on Tuesday. "It's a concern, and it's part of what motivates us right now to be putting so much emphasis on the recruiting, the hiring and the training," he said.
Buttigieg said that while the FAA works to remedy its issues, airlines have accounted for more of the delays, and they need to address their problems, too. He also noted that many have hired more employees in the past year.
"These airlines can be perfectly profitable while treating passengers better," he said.
The industry group representing airlines said it is "very concerned" about air traffic control staffing but is focused on completing flights.
"There's really not a lot of room for the blame game and finger-pointing," Airlines for America CEO Nick Calio told CNN. "There's a lot of reasons for cancellations. ... What if a staffing shortage at an air traffic control center causes a delay and the delay cascades? Who's responsible? So, you know our responsibility - everyone's responsibility - is to the passengers and the cargo."
While Boyd predicts relatively smooth operations for airlines, he called FAA staffing "another issue" and referred to the disruption this week in Denver.
"That might be a new dynamic. If that's the case, we might have some meltdowns, but it won't be airline-driven, it'll be FAA-driven," Boyd said.
And, of course, there's the weather factor.
"Summer always features lines of thunderstorms moving across the national airspace, disrupting air traffic, and this summer may include more of the even higher energy weather we increasingly see daily," Mann said.
Tips for smoother flights
Clearly, a lot of factors are outside a traveler's control. But with AAA expecting 3.4 million people to fly over the holiday period, every bit of preparation counts. The FAA is forecasting more than 51,000 flights on Thursday, which is expected to be the busiest day for flights. Federal officials anticipate the peak number of passengers on Friday.
Here's what you can do to prepare:
Fly direct and early in the day - on the first flight, if possible.
The weather is generally better in the morning, Keyes said, and your aircraft should be parked overnight so you won't be waiting on a plane. And you won't have risk missed connections flying direct.
If you have a connecting flight, Bangs says to make sure the time between connections is sufficient considering the distance between terminals, whether you're traveling with children and how quickly you can navigate a busy terminal with carry-on bags.
Check the big-picture weather. Bangs suggests reviewing the National Weather Service site in the days leading up to your flight for a broad overview of systems that could affect your plans. And download your airline's app for easy flight updates.
Know your rights. The Department of Transportation has created an online dashboard outlining what carriers will provide in various scenarios.
"If an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight - regardless of the reason why, even if due to bad weather - under federal law, you're entitled to a full cash refund if you no longer wish to travel," said Keyes.
Have a backup plan, even if it's a last resort.
"If you're on one of these carriers that only flies like three days a week to a destination, man, when they cancel, you better have a backup plan because airplanes do break, and if the next flight is next Tuesday and it's full, you've got a problem," Boyd said.
Bangs said that means having a plan for either continuing your trip or getting home.
"Anything ranging from enough balance on a credit card to purchase another ticket if necessary (while you sort things out later with the offending carrier) to trading in frequent flyer miles for a last-minute ticket if stranded," she said.
Here are more tips for navigating flight disruptions. Fingers crossed for smooth travels.
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