Airways Wrestle to Cope as Journey Picks Up and Storms Drive Delays

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Summer excursions test the boundaries of the country’s air traffic system as airlines and airports seek to restore operations decimated by the pandemic.

Nearly 10,000 flights were delayed in the United States on Sunday as travel volumes increased and airlines faced bad weather and other disruptions.

Among the largest airlines in the country, Southwest Airlines had the most delays, with 30 percent of flights being delayed, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. American Airlines delayed 25 percent of its flights, compared to 23 percent for United Airlines and 21 percent for Delta Air Lines.

The slowdown came as travel hit new pandemic heights: The Transportation Security Administration screened 2.1 million people at their airport security checkpoints on Sunday, most since early March 2020.

Several airlines, including Southwest, blamed bad weather for the delays. Thunderstorms affected operations at Delta’s hub airports in Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit and intricate efforts to get flight crews in place, a spokesman said. American’s problems had worsened since the beginning of the month.

“The first few weeks of June brought unprecedented weather to our largest hubs that severely affected our operations, resulting in delays, flight cancellations and disruption to both crew and customer schedules,” American said in a statement.

Each of the country’s major airlines faced significant delays on Sunday, but only American had significant cancellations as well, affecting about 6 percent of flights, according to FlightAware. Citing the bad weather, vendors’ labor shortages and the rapid rise in tourist traffic, American said it would cut its schedule over the next few weeks to minimize last-minute disruption.

“Our focus this summer – and always – is on delivering to our customers in all circumstances,” the airline said in a statement. “We never want to disappoint and are of the opinion that these flight plan adjustments will help us to take good care of our customers and team members and minimize surprises at the airport.”

All in all, American canceled about a thousand flights in July, more than 0.5 percent of its flight schedule that month, according to Cirium, a flight data provider. Most of the cuts will be concentrated in the first half of the month, the airline said.

The cancellation situation improved a bit on Monday. Delta and United had only canceled a few flights by early evening, while American and Southwest canceled about 5 percent each. Still, just under a quarter of American and Southwest-operated flights were delayed, while more than a tenth of United and Delta-operated flights were delayed.

Despite the complications, the rebound is welcome news for the entire industry, which has suffered devastating financial losses. Only one major airline, Southwest, has reported quarterly profit since the pandemic began.

But the resurgence has not come without difficulties. Reports of disruptive and sometimes violent passenger behavior are increasing – so much so that a group of major airlines and unions on Monday called on the Justice Department to take action against such behavior.

“These incidents pose a safety threat to our passengers and staff, and we respectfully ask the Department of Justice to undertake to fully and publicly prosecute acts of violence on board,” the group said in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garlande.

The recovery is far from over. TSA screenings are down more than 25 percent over the past week from the same period in 2019, and business travel and international travel, two money-makers for airlines, have yet to see significant gains.