The weeks leading up to July Fourth are always a busy time for American roads and skies as people travel for vacations, and this year may hit pre-COVID highs for traffic. Unfortunately, airlines are plagued with staffing issues and intense weather, which means a lot of travelers are headed for frustration as delays mount.
The delays are mounting for various reasons that all have intensified under the weight of travel surges. Americans largely have reached the conclusion that COVID is over and are taking to the skies at levels not seen since 2019. Despite this return to the air, the industry is grappling with pilot shortages that have been caused by a combination of retirements, illness, and difficulty rehiring after historic COVID-era layoffs. Now, under the surge of sheer volume, airlines are forced to cancel thousands of flights and even entire routes, sometimes cutting off entire cities from major air carriers. Pilots also say the stress of making up for lost staffing has increased their burden to untenable levels, with Southwest employees picketing at Dallas Love Field and the Delta Pilots’ Union issuing a letter of no-confidence in the company. Both unions have noted that reports of pilot fatigue are reaching all-time highs, and the Delta pilots’ letter specifically notes that their aviators are on track to fly more overtime hours in 2022 than they did in 2018 and 2019 combined. On top of all this, airlines contend with extremely severe weather caused by extreme, unprecedented heat waves, which has also delayed a significant number of flights.
All of these factors are manifesting in cascading cancellations and delays at nearly every airport across the globe. This past weekend, more than 5,000 flights were canceled within, out of, or into America; Wednesday alone saw over 1,400 cancellations. Stateside, the worst airports to fly out of this year were Chicago (MDW), Newark (EWR), and Orlando (MCO), all of which have seen 30 percent or more of their departing flights delayed by 15 minutes or more. The problem is worsening as the year wears on, as well: Yesterday, June 22, Reagan National (DCA) saw a stunning 24 percent of departing flights canceled (115 in total) and another 27 percent delayed, followed closely by LaGuardia (LGA) at 24 percent of scheduled departures canceled.
The situation has become so dire that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg met with airline CEOs last week to urge them to take steps to fix travel delays and cancellations, only to have his own flight canceled a day later. Unfortunately, a solution is not going to be a rapid fix: airline companies in America are attempting to hire over 12,000 pilots this year, but with vast shortages across the industry and long training processes for commercial aviators, backfilling for pilots isn’t exactly as easy as putting out a few classified ads.
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