Ahead of the weekend of July 4, airlines are facing a wave of concern over flight cancellations — and new pressure from Washington to ensure they don’t let travelers down.
Wednesday saw more than 2,000 cancellations in one day, according to FlightAware data, as uncertainty continued into the holiday season. The increase in canceled flights is particularly bad because it is happening to all airlines, straining the system’s capacity and preventing many travelers from reaching their destinations. A Washington Post report on tuesday detailed the human cost of those cancellations, with travelers sleeping on airport floors or canceling travel altogether.
A closer look at the data shows that the number of cancellations has really increased in recent months, peaking in January with more than 33,000 cancellations in one month, more than double the equivalent of 2019. With leisure travel increasing, many worried that the cancellation of the summer figures will be even higher.
The numbers are still well below the pandemic-induced peak in March and April 2020, with more than 100,000 cancellations per month. But while those cancellations were caused by quarantine rules and a broader drop in demand, the more recent problems are caused by a shortage of supply.
Staff is a particular problem as airlines struggle to replace the thousands of pilots who made buyouts in 2020 as the industry responded to the pandemic. With those pilots out of work, airlines struggled to crew their planes — and often had to cancel flights because they couldn’t arrange crews. As the deficit grows, some industry analysts have proposed relaxing pilot certification requirements, including the rule that 1,500 hours of flight time is required before a commercial aircraft can be piloted.
Politicians have spoken out to demand fewer cancellations – often while invoking the industry’s generous terms $54 billion pandemic bailout†
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman called the White House impose a $27,500 fine on airlines for any flight canceled due to known staff shortages. “The government has a responsibility to hold these airlines accountable,” Fetterman said in a statement. “Taxpayers saved them and now it’s their turn to keep their end of the deal.”
When asked about Fetterman’s proposal, the Department of Transportation pointed to his… continuous enforcement actions to ensure airlines adhere to their refund policies. “We share the expectation that when Americans buy a plane ticket, they will get to where they need to go safely, affordably and reliably,” said department spokesman Benjamin Halle. “We will continue to work with airlines to meet that expectation, but also don’t hesitate to use enforcement measures to hold them accountable.”