Vacation flights on July 4th: Disruptions proceed, the United Nations is struggling

Travelers will arrive at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois on June 30, 2023. Travel forecasters are predicting record travel for the 4th of July weekend, but this year’s celebrations could also be a battle with the elements.

Kamil Krzaczynski | AFP | Getty Images

Flight delays and cancellations continued to affect thousands of July 4 travelers on Friday United Airlines Passengers bear the brunt of the problems.

The Transportation Security Administration expects 17.7 million people to be screened from June 29 through July 5, with a peak of more than 2.8 million people on Friday. That would be a one-day record for daily screenings and one of the clearest signs yet of air travel’s strong recovery from the Covid pandemic.

More than 4,800 US flights were delayed Friday, with United suffering more delays than its competition.

As of 5pm on Friday, the airline had canceled more than 230 mainline flights, accounting for 8% of its operations, while more than 790 flights, or more than a quarter of its schedule, were delayed, according to flight tracking company FlightAware.

That was still far less disruption than Thursday and a notable improvement from last weekend, when a series of thunderstorms along the East Coast wreaked havoc at some of the country’s most congested airports. Some airline executives blamed the Federal Aviation Administration’s shortage of air traffic controllers for compounding problems for their customers.

All week long, customers lay on airport floors waiting for hours for flight information or new schedules while seats on other flights or other airlines were in short supply. They also had to deal with long customer service lines and lost bags.

Even the CEO of United Airlines couldn’t snag a seat outside of the New York metro area. On Wednesday, Scott Kirby took a private jet from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey to Denver, Colorado.

An airline spokeswoman told CNBC United did not pay for his flight. Kirby apologized to staff and travelers on Friday for taking the private jet while so many others were stranded.

“Taking a private jet was the wrong decision because we didn’t take into account our customers who were waiting to get home,” Kirby said in a statement to CNBC. “I sincerely apologize to our customers and our team members who have worked around the clock for several days – often during severe weather – to take care of our customers.

“Observing our team firsthand with our clients at four different airports and countless meetings this week, I realize they represent the best of United and I regret that I detracted from their professionalism,” continued he continued. “I promise to do more to show my respect for the dedication of our team members and the loyalty of our customers.”

United said Friday afternoon their performance is improving going into the bank holiday weekend. The airline is offering affected travelers waivers so they can rebook their trips without having to pay fare differences.

But it also warned: “Storms in Denver, Chicago and the East Coast will continue to be a challenge, but most of today’s cancellations have been made in advance to give customers time to adjust.”

Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Friday drew United’s attention to the challenges of the past week, saying the airline’s disruptions are “significant but moving in the right direction”.

Airlines are under political and public pressure to fly reliably after their over-ambitious schedules and understaffing led to routine challenges like bad weather. Difficulties arise as demand for travel rebounds from pandemic lows.

More storms and challenges like wildfire smoke from Canada are likely to weigh on airlines in the coming days, although this week’s worst disruptions have mostly subsided. (Of course, if your flight is canceled or delayed, the airlines owe you the following.)

According to flight tracking site FlightAware, more than 42,000 flights operated by US airlines were delayed Saturday through Thursday and more than 7,900 were canceled altogether. More than 5% of U.S. schedules have been canceled, about four times the cancellation rate so far this year.

During that six-period span, half of United’s main flights were delayed, an average delay of 106 minutes, according to FlightAware data. Another 19% of the program was cancelled.

Union leaders blamed United for some of the problems that left crews and passengers stranded during the disruptions. Flight disruptions are common because crews and aircraft are out of position, and long delays can push them to government-mandated working limits.

United is offering flight attendants triple pay to cover shifts during the peak holiday season.

“United management’s failure to properly staff the workforce planners, flight attendant support team and more has exacerbated these operational problems, leaving passengers and flight attendants waiting hours for responses,” said Ken Diaz, president of United’s division the Association of Flight Attendants said in a statement Thursday. “The airline actually ‘lost’ crews in the system for days because of such a serious disruption in operations.”

Garth Thompson, a United captain and chairman of the United branch of the Air Line Pilots Association union, accused the company of not investing in the operation.

“Flying in the summer can be challenging, but this summer will be unnecessarily memorable,” he said. “For those caught up in the unforced blunders of management, I am truly sorry.”

Both unions are in contract negotiations with the company and are seeking compensation and improved deadlines.

A person sits on the ground at JFK International Airport on June 30, 2023 in New York City.

David Dee Delgado | Getty Images

United CEO Kirby wrote to staff on Monday that some of the problems over the past weekend were due to air traffic controller staffing shortages, and said that “the FAA frankly let us down” when it announced arrivals and lowered departure rates at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, a major United hub.

The FAA earlier this year warned of staffing shortages in the New York City area, and some airlines agreed to reduce capacity to avoid overloading the system.

“It resulted in massive delays, cancellations, diversions, crews and aircraft losing their positions,” Kirby wrote in a staff note seen by CNBC. “And that brought everyone to their heads when the weather actually hit on Sunday, and was exacerbated by staffing shortages at the FAA on Sunday night.”

JetBlue also blamed the FAA for similar problems.

“We are working with the FAA to better understand what led to the significant and unexpected ATC restrictions this week, affecting thousands of flights across multiple airlines,” JetBlue COO Joanna Geraghty said in a memo on Wednesday the employees. “The severity and length of the recent programs have been worse than previous similar weather experiences and this has upset tens of thousands of our customers and in many cases blamed JetBlue for a situation beyond our control.”

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