Airlines, feds prep for flight interruptions as summer bookings soar

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Airlines are crowing about early summer bookings returning to pre-pandemic levels, but the federal government is blaming them for delays and cancellations that airline analysts say are poised to ground passengers again.

Over the past two years, airlines have scheduled fewer flights and filled larger planes with more passengers, thousands of whom have found themselves stranded in airports during holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day and Christmas.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and air carriers have pointed fingers at each other over delays and cancellations. The airlines have blamed bad weather and a shortage of federal air traffic controllers, but the government says carriers have created the problem by pinching pennies. The Republican-led House Transportation Committee commissioned the GAO report, which analyzed flight data from January 2018 through last month. It found that airlines are taking more time to recover from storms than before the pandemic, with delays in 2021 and early 2022 lasting longer than before pandemic restrictions shuttered the nation’s airports in March 2020.

Now the airlines have more workers than before the pandemic, and cancellations have occurred at a lower rate this year than during the first few months of 2019, according to the latest data from tracking website FlightAware. Responding to the GAO report, the trade group Airlines for America said most cancellations this year have occurred due to severe weather and problems with air traffic control.

“These significant improvements to our national airspace system are just in time for summer and will help travelers get to their destinations more efficiently,” said Tim Arel, the chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.Helane Becker, an airlines analyst and managing director at Cowen Financial Services, said airports will face bigger crowds this summer even as they struggle to handle bad weather, recurring staff absences and air traffic control problems.

 

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