The Fourth of July holiday weekend has started in full swing with airport crowds crushing numbers seen in 2019, before the pandemic.
Travelers across the United States experienced hundreds of canceled flights and a few thousand delays on Friday, just as they did earlier this week.
Patricia Carreno arrived with friends at Los Angeles International Airport to learn that their Alaska Airlines flight to Mazatlan, Mexico had been cancelled.
“We’ll probably drive to Mexico – to Tijuana, the border – and just fly from there,” she said.
The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 2.4 million travelers at airport checkpoints Thursday, up 17% from the same Friday before July 4, 2019. U.S. air travel is expected to set a record high pandemic era at least once over the weekend.
Motorway traffic may also be heavy.
AAA predicts nearly 48 million people will travel at least 50 miles or more from home over the weekend, down slightly from 2019. AAA says road trips will set a record even with the national average price gas for about $5.
Leisure travel has rebounded this year, meaning particularly large crowds over three-day holiday weekends.
With many full flights over the July 4 weekend, airlines will struggle to find seats for passengers like Carreno whose flights are canceled. Airlines have asked customers to check their flight status before heading to the airport.
If you’re already at the airport when your flight is cancelled, “it’s time to develop your multitasking skills,” said Sebastian Modak, editor of travel guide publisher Lonely Planet.
Modak advised going directly to the airline’s help desk, checking their app on your phone, and calling the airline’s customer service line – an international number might be answered sooner than a number American for airlines that have both. He said driving or taking the bus or train would be a better option for shorter journeys.
“There’s no getting around the fact that this summer is going to be a summer of travel delays, cancellations and frustrations,” he said.
By early Friday evening on the East Coast, airlines had canceled about 500 US flights and another 5,100 had been delayed, according to FlightAware. Scattered thunderstorms in the New York area made it likely the numbers would climb. From June 22 to Wednesday, at least 600 flights were canceled and between 4,000 and 7,000 were delayed per day, the tracking service said.
Airline executives blame the recent spate of canceled flights on the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs the country’s air traffic control system, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg disputes that claim.
Passengers are caught in the middle.
Mari Ismail, who flew to Atlanta on Friday, said it took a long time to check in and clear security before her flight from Baltimore.
“I got to my door just as they started boarding, so it was a very long process,” she said.
Jordane Jeffrey said she had booked a round trip from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for holiday Monday.
“I hope there won’t be any delays because I’m working that night,” she said.
Airlines sometimes overbook flights in the hope that some passengers won’t show up. When there are more passengers than seats, airlines will offer money or travel vouchers to people willing to catch the next flight.
Earlier this week, a columnist for Inc. magazine wrote that Delta flight attendants were offering $10,000 cash to people who leave a plane waiting to take off from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Delta spokesman Anthony Black neither confirmed nor denied the reporter’s account, but did note that the airline increased the compensation agents can offer in such cases to $9,950 in 2017. The move followed a public relations nightmare at United Airlines, when airport officials bloodied and dragged a 69-year-old doctor off a sold-out plane – a case that went to trial, to a confidential settlement and late-night television jokes about United’s customer service.
Even with vacationers crowding into airports and on planes, the total number of people flying hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels due to a drop in business and international travel. The TSA screened 11% fewer people in June compared to the same month in 2019.
Thursday marked just the 11th time since the start of the pandemic that the TSA has screened more people than it did on the same day in 2019, and only the second time since February.
Airlines could almost surely carry more passengers if they had enough staff. Many U.S. airlines have cut their summer schedules after bad weather, air traffic delays and a lack of employees caused widespread cancellations over Memorial Day weekend.
Airlines paid thousands of workers to quit during the early days of the pandemic, when air travel plummeted and airline revenues dried up. They have been hiring for a short time, but it takes time to train the pilots, who are particularly rare.
Now, airlines competing for key employees are offering double-digit raises to pilots, who find themselves with leverage in negotiations over new contracts.