Fourth of July ‘travel drama’: Airlines warn passengers to prepare for issues

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Barrett Lane was on his way from Washington, D.C., to one of his college best friend’s wedding in Thousand Oaks, California, when his flight was delayed ahead of July Fourth weekend.

The 34-year-old transportation project manager and his husband had flown into Newark, New Jersey, where they were supposed to change planes, when their United Airlines flight to Los Angeles was pushed back four hours because of a maintenance problem. 

Several more delays later, the couple boarded the plane Wednesday night along with other passengers, and sat at the gate for three hours.

The airline eventually let them deplane, and the flight was pushed back until the morning. Hotels were full, so the couple slept on cots on the airport floor.

“I think I maybe slept like an hour total,” Lane told USA TODAY. By the time the flight finally took off the next morning, it had been delayed more than 14 hours.

While Lane’s experience was on the extreme end, up and cancellations have become all too common this summer as air transportation struggles to get back to normal after the pandemic-era slump. 

United gave the couple a total of $60 in food vouchers and $300 in flight credit each, Lane said. A customer service representative also told Lane the airline would refund the miles he used for the flight (his husband booked separately and had not called customer service yet). And while he planned to skip the wedding rehearsal to rest, he is going to try to enjoy the trip and occasion.

“You can talk about your travel drama for a little bit … but the focus is on the bride and the groom and the wedding party,” he said. “So, I’m going to try my best not to be the main character this weekend.”

Demand for flights is up, and airlines are stretched thin trying to get people where they want to go. For travelers, it’s more important than ever to be patient and ready for changes, especially heading into a holiday weekend that’s sure to bring even bigger crowds to the airports.

What’s going on in the airports today?

Around 8 a.m. ET on Friday over 200 U.S. flights had been canceled and over 650 more were delayed, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight status in real-time. Among domestic carriers, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have the most cancelations so far, impacting 1% of their flights..  

What’s causing the problems?

In the U.S., the biggest problem this summer has been a shortage of pilots. 

Airlines don’t have enough people on staff to fly all the flights they scheduled in many cases, and with rosters stretched thin, it’s taking extra time for carriers to recover when something goes wrong.

We need more pilots to enter into the profession as an industry, as a country, that’s important. And until we address certain things to enable that to happen, this is going to become increasingly acute,” Andrew Levy, CEO of ultra-low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines told USA TODAY. “The result is going to be less air service in this country and people will pay higher fares.”

On top of that, airlines say, the Federal Aviation Administration is struggling with staffing at some of its air traffic control centers, which can lead flight departures to be pushed back until the controllers have the bandwidth to handle more incoming planes.

“The answer of what the next few months are going to look like were answered three months ago in terms of staffing and schedules,” said Courtney Miller, ounder of Visual Approach Analytics.