Flights canceled over Memorial Day weekend offer travelers a peek into the future: NPR

Passengers line up at a security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport on Thursday.

David Zalobowski/AFP


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David Zalobowski/AFP


Passengers line up at a security checkpoint in the main terminal of Denver International Airport on Thursday.

David Zalobowski/AFP

The unofficial start of summer over Memorial Day weekend offers an unsettling glimpse of what awaits travelers during the height of the holiday season.

US airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights from Thursday to Monday, or about 2% of their schedules, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Delta Air Lines, usually among the top performers, had the worst record among the major airlines with more than 800 canceled flights over a five-day period.

“This was an opportunity for airlines to show that last summer’s delays will not be repeated this summer, however, they were not to be repeated,” said Helen Baker, an analyst at Cowen Banking. It blamed the disturbances on bad weather, air traffic delays, airline crew members calling in sick, and long security lines at some airports.

“We’re expecting a busy summer, and we’re concerned about the industry’s ability to handle demand,” Baker said.

When Delta was asked to comment Tuesday on its problems over the weekend, she referred to a statement she made last week, when she said she was facing challenges including a spike in COVID-19 cases among workers.

Delta operated 13% more flights in May than it did a year ago, but announced last week that it would reduce its July and August schedules by up to 3% to make the remaining flights more reliable. The pilots’ union said it had warned the airline for months about the crew shortage.

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“We understand the frustration of our customers, especially over the weekend,” said Evan Bach, Boeing 767 captain in Delta and an official with the Airline Pilots Association. “Delta has not adequately provided the airline with pilots for the number of flights they want to take.”

The good news is that flight cancellations fell sharply on Tuesday. FlightAware was reporting only about 80 by late afternoon on the East Coast.

The various forecasts of large numbers of travelers over the weekend proved to be accurate. The Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 11 million people were screened at airport checkpoints from Thursday through Monday.

That was 9% lower than on the same days in 2019, but about 25% more than last year. Crowds of just under 2.4 million on Thursday and Friday nearly match the high epidemic level recorded on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

That means many flights were also packed, because flight schedules had not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to figures from travel research firm Cirium.

The US airline industry is hoping to push passenger numbers up, in part by removing one of the last travel restrictions linked to the pandemic in the US. Industry representatives said they met Tuesday with White House officials to reiterate their request to end the requirement that travelers test negative for COVID-19 within one day of travel to the United States.

Airlines for America Trading Group said its member airlines estimate that eliminating the requirement would result in an increase of 4.3 million international passengers over the course of one year. Airlines believe many Americans are unwilling to travel abroad because they would be stranded if they contracted the virus on their trip.

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