Canceled flights, lighter schedules due to take-off in demand for travel

If you decide to travel somewhere for the Memorial Day vacation, it may not have been so fun. Six thousand global flights were canceled starting Friday with hundreds of other flights postponed. Delta Air Lines, with its Twin Cities hub, has canceled more than 500 domestic and international flights on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

Is this just a preview of a miserable summer travel season? Can. “Be extra patient when you travel this summer,” says the TSA chief. MPR News has asked Kyle Potter, executive editor of the Thrifty Traveler website, for help with air travel issues.

The following is an edited version for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

There seemed to be a laundry list of issues that developed over the weekend, so what went wrong?

You know, to use clichés, it was a complete storm. It was all from some pockets of bad weather in the Southeast, there were air traffic control issues, and there’s a systemic problem across the airline industry of pilot shortages. And clearly there are airlines – Delta in particular – who are experiencing crew outages due to COVID infection. So I added all of this stuff, and the wheels just kicked in, and it ran particularly poorly for a Delta.

Then Delta announced — Thursday, I think — that it was cutting its summer flight schedule. How will that add to the problems?

It’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are people with Delta reservations coming through early August who really need to look at those reservations and see how they might have changed because Delta is trying to shrink their schedule. Cut a few flights off hoping to give themselves some wiggle room to avoid summer problems and repeat mass cancellations on the day of flights.

The good news is, if they do enough, we won’t see a repeat of what we saw over Memorial Day weekend. But the writing is on the wall, I think, because Delta did this heading to Memorial Day weekend. And we’re still seeing, you know, over 700 cancellations from Friday to Sunday. This was more than Delta canceled in the entire summer of 2019. I mean, there are some very obvious problems.

And look, that’s a lot bigger than delta. This is a very baked-in problem throughout the airline industry, as every airline in the country – big and small – isn’t big enough, and doesn’t give itself enough wiggle room to recover when things go wrong. So when you see bad storms, when we see pilot or crew issues or air traffic control issues, they don’t have the crew to recover without canceling flights.

How fast can airlines operate? Or is this just going to be something they will be dealing with for years?

As you know, I hope this is not a problem that has been going on for years. But this is not a problem that you can solve in a matter of weeks. You know, whether we’re talking about flight attendants, and especially pilots. This process takes a month to get people on board, certified and ready to fly.

Delta and other airlines have talked a lot about their hiring programs and the amount of their staff. But the problem at the moment is that none of these airlines can grow fast enough to handle the demand for travel the way it is now rising. I think it is safe to say that there will be ongoing concerns and problems throughout the summer travel season. And we just have to see where things go from there.

Delays and cancellations. The prices are really expensive. I think the travelers were surprised by that.

They are surprised, but do you know what? The problems that led to these delays and cancellations, are really the same thing that caused the fare hike. It is supply and demand.

The supply of flights hasn’t been the same in 2019 because all of these airlines are downsizing, retiring planes, encouraging pilots and crews to retire early or take acquisition packages, and travel demand has just found new gear over the past several weeks.

And these airlines aren’t big enough to contend with. This means that prices are going up. This means that when things go wrong, problems happen. And then you add the increased cost of jet fuel, which is obviously a huge expense for airlines, and that doesn’t help either. But just last week, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said he expects summer fare prices to increase another 25 to 30 percent higher than what we’re already seeing. Which you know, to me, it’s as high as I’ve seen it in the last five years at least.

Last minute tip for travelers?

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. See even on the worst day, 75% of flights get out on time and arrive on time, but the potential for problems is as high as ever. So keep an eye on your reservations, watch the news about problems with your airline and prepare to deal with some problems and hope you don’t have to.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

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