Travelers make their way through Orlando International Airport over New Year’s weekend despite thousands of flight cancellations and delays across the United States.
Paul Hennessy | Light Rocket | Getty Images
It’s been an expensive and chaotic summer for air travel.
A larger proportion of flights were delayed or canceled during the late spring and summer peak travel season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, compared to the same period prior to the 2019 pandemic Millions of consumers booked trips after missing out on flights for two years. Round-trip domestic flights cost an average of $342 between May and September, up nearly 11% from the same period in 2019, according to fare tracker Hopper.
Labor shortages made it even harder for airlines to recover from routine events. Over-ambitious truckers have slashed their busy schedules to give their operations more breathing room. Overwhelmed European hubs limited passenger numbers. Even the travel benefits for airline employees have been scaled back.
Government agencies and airlines disputed who was to blame. And on September 1, the Department of Transportation released a dashboard outlining what customers are owed when airlines delay or cancel their flights.
Fares are finally starting to fall along with temperatures, but demand for holiday travel is still strong, executives said this week.
“We’re having a really strong September,” United Airlines senior vice president of global network planning and alliances Patrick Quayle said at an industry conference in Cowen this week. “It doesn’t look like the summer has ended. That’s how strong it is.”
As airlines gear up for fall — and the busy end-of-year holiday season — here’s how they’ve dealt with the heat this summer:
Make vacation like 2019
Passenger numbers have skyrocketed this summer compared to the past two years. Over Labor Day weekend, the Transportation Security Administration screened about 8.76 million people, marking the first holiday weekend since the start of the Covid pandemic to be busier than one in 2019.
Airlines have canceled or rescheduled a larger proportion of their flights compared to 2019. Thinner staffing levels and training backlogs meant they had fewer crew members to fill in when scheduled employees like pilots hit federally mandated workday limits.
Operations improved for some airlines in August and the important Labor Day weekend. Delta Air Lines reduced August cancellations by 25% compared to July, CEO Ed Bastian said Thursday in an employee memo verified by CNBC. On Labor Day, the airline canceled 15 mainline flights out of 16,636 departures, he said.
Airport delays varied across the country, but some of the largest hubs had a larger share of delayed flights, often caused by spring and summer storms.
Complaints are piling up
Complaints from travelers to the transportation department increased along with flight disruptions.
Domestic round-trip fares rose sharply this spring, peaking at $404 in May, up 25% from three years ago, according to Hopper data. But a drop in prices combined with a seasonal lull as business travel remains below 2019 volumes makes for some fall deals.
Domestic air fares average $299 in September, still 2% higher than the same month three years ago. And airline executives expect travel demand to pick up sharply around the holiday period.
“Although we’re slowing down a bit after peaking in the summer, the holiday travel season will be here before you know it,” American Airlines COO David Seymour told employees this week.