Flying Fourth of July weekend or later this summer? Pack your patience and this game plan.
You know travelers are in for a bumpy Fourth of July weekend when airlines and the U.S. government begin pointing fingers at each other in the days ahead of the holiday. For months, travelers have been dealing with above-normal levels of flight delays and cancellations, with airlines chopping more than 15% of scheduled summer flights due to staffing shortages and other operational issues.
Unfortunately, experts see more of the same on the horizon. “Looking at the past few weeks, I don’t think there’s any reason to think that things are going to go especially smoothly this weekend,” says Scott Keyes, co-founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, an airfare deals newsletter with more than two million subscribers.
“With 11 million travelers expected to fly over July Fourth, we are expecting a busy holiday weekend and travelers should be prepared for potential disruptions,” says Hayley Berg, chief economist at Hopper, the deal-finding site and app that made the Forbes Fintech 50 this year. “Eleven percent more flights are being disrupted this June than at the same time in 2019.”
Delta Air Lines is going so far as allow fliers to pre-emptively bail on their weekend plans and skip the airport altogether. The carrier is letting passengers change their tickets for free and avoid paying any fare difference during a “potentially challenging weekend travel days.”
All of this may help explain the industry’s recent attempts to deflect blame. Last week, Airlines for America, a trade group representing U.S. airlines, fired off a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, claiming that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) understaffing is “crippling” traffic along the East Coast.
“The FAA does not have a system-wide air traffic controller shortage,” the agency retorted in a statement, pointing out that airlines received $54 billion in pandemic relief and “the American people deserve to have their expectations met.”
For every flight that get canceled, four get delayed. If you can’t book a non-stop flight, there’s an elevated risk that at least one leg will be disrupted.
While passenger volume is higher now than at any time during the pandemic, it’s still about 8% lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to throughput data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “It’s not as though this travel demand is unprecedented,” says Keyes.
Still, airline staffing shortages are real, and slicing flights is a necessary evil. “The pilot shortage has hit the regional carriers particularly hard,” says Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and current spokesperson for FlightAware, a free app that provides real-time, historical, and predictive flight tracking data. “Larger carriers such as Southwest, American, and Alaska Airlines are all in pilot contract negotiations, and the various unions have vocalized they are frustrated with having to fly demanding schedules with little reprieve.”
Even so, says Keyes, it’s fair to blame the major airlines for last-minute cancellations when the smaller airlines were so much better at reading the tea leaves. “Months ago, many of the budget airlines — Spirit, JetBlue, Alaska and others — actually preempted this by trimming their schedules and right-sizing so that they didn’t wind up having these last-minute cancellations,” he says. “The legacy airlines have been caught flatfooted, having to to scramble last minute because they didn’t prepare for this as well as they should have.”
Of course, the U.S. air travel system, which handled about 45,000 flights a day before the Covid-19 pandemic, can absorb a large number of cancellations without melting down. “In normal times, one percent or below is pretty much an average day for U.S. air carrier cancellations,” says Bangs, noting that in 2019, the busiest year on record, the average cancellation rate was 2%.
“But so far in 2022, we’re seeing it at an average of 3%,” she says. “It starts to get noticeable around that threshold and over the long Father’s Day-Juneteenth weekend, we saw cancellations hit 5% and 6%.”
“It might be a single carrier that is experiencing the brunt of cancellations,” says Bangs, “or the cancellations might be spread out more evenly among a number of airlines.”
Risk Factors To Watch Out For
irports are crowded and flights are full these days. Even so, most flights will take off and land on time, and most travelers will indeed get to their destination without many hiccups.
Still, it can be very useful to understand which factors can put your flight at a higher risk for delay or cancellation—especially if you’re booking a trip for later in the summer.
Storms and other weather events can inject mayhem into the country’s air travel. In late January, airlines canceled thousands of flights per day for several days running due to snowstorms that slammed the Northeast.
“Barring an unforeseen circumstance, the single most important factor that’s likely to impact Fourth of July holiday travel is weather, especially any widespread or long-lasting area of significant severe thunderstorm activity,” says Bangs.
What’s important to know—especially as America is now in the early part of hurricane season—is that inclement weather in a localized region can quickly turn into a national air travel problem because of how airlines reuse planes and crews for multiple trips during the day.
“People don’t always understand why bad weather in Florida might impact their flight in Kansas City,” says Keyes. “But even if their flight didn’t originate in Florida and isn’t going to Florida, the plane might have been scheduled to go through Florida earlier.”
“Statistically your flight is less likely to get canceled the earlier in the day you fly,” says Bangs. “In the summer, stormy weather tends to be more problematic in afternoons and evenings. But any time of year, early flights have the least cancellations.”
What’s more, explains Keyes, “cancellations beget more cancellations, because there’s a cascading effect.” If Delta cancels a flight from Atlanta to New York because the pilot is sick, that plane and its flight crew are then unavailable for a later flight between New York and St. Louis. The first cancellation leads to a second, and a third, and so on.
HIGHLY IMPACTED AIRPORT
“Travelers departing from major cities across the country this summer can expect to see a high volume of delays and an increase in cancellations, especially from major airports that are already seeing more than 40% of scheduled departures disrupted,” says Berg. “Travelers headed abroad or returning from international trips are also expected to face disruptions, with more than 50% of flights disrupted at many major international hubs and connecting airports.”
These airports had the highest percentage of disrupted flights (canceled or delayed) in the previous week (June 10-18, 2022)
MANY CANCELED FLIGHTS THE PRIOR DAY
“Yesterday’s cancellations can have an echo effect today, because all the people whose flights got canceled yesterday still want to travel and need to be re-accommodated,” Keyes explains. That means if your flight is canceled, it may be harder to catch another on the same day or even the next.
LOW FREQUENCY OF FLIGHTS ON YOUR ROUTE
When flying with any carrier, but especially the ultra-low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier, Bangs recommends checking to see how many flights per week go to your destination. This is particularly important when flying to remote locations like Hawaii and Alaska, as well as international destinations.
If there are only a few flights per week to your destination, you may be at risk of getting stuck there longer than you had planned. “If your flight is canceled, you could be on the hook, waiting for days, as you miss work and rack up hotel bills at a resort,” says Bangs.
Likewise, flying in and out of smaller airports comes with a higher risk. “If a given airline only has one or two flights per day to your destination, then you have little backup,” says Bangs, “and those flights are more attractive to cut if an airline needs your airplane on a busier route.”
“Pilots have been conducting informational picketing at airports and even on Wall Street as a number of major carriers’ unions are in contract negotiations with management,” says Bangs. “If a strike occurs anytime this summer, then cancellations will pile up.”
For every flight that gets canceled, four get delayed. If you can’t book a non-stop flight, there’s an elevated risk that at least one leg will be disrupted. “Currently about 23% of flights departing from U.S airports are delayed, which is up by 22% in June compared to May and 8% higher than at this point in 2019,” says Berg.
“Delay times are getting longer which means more chance of missing a connecting flight,” says Bangs.
Your Summer Travel Game Plan
ven with so many flights already canceled for the summer, Keyes believes there are more bad days to come. “Most cancellations that are happening right now are coming in the last 24 to 36 hours or so before travel time, not well enough in advance to give folks a reasonable shot at re-accommodating.”
Here are some actionable steps travelers can take to help them navigate out of the quagmire.
BUILD A BUFFER DAY
It may be too late for July Fourth weekend, but for later in the summer, it can be wise to pad your getaway with an extra day to give you wiggle room. Fly a day early for major fixed events like weddings or cruise departures.
For about $25, travelers can add Hopper’s Trip Protection, whether or not they booked through the service. It covers flight delays, cancellations and missed connections. “If you experience a disruption, you can rebook immediately on any carrier and get out on the next flight for free, or receive a refund,” Berg says. The Hopper app offers Cancel for Any Reason or Change for Any Reason protection at no additional cost for the traveler, and Hopper pays the difference to the airline if you make changes to your trip.
TRACK YOUR PLANE
As explained above, late-day flights get canceled more often because planes never make it to their departure airport. One of Bangs’ favorite features on FlightAware can tell you if your plane is on schedule, which can give you an early heads-up that a problem may be brewing. Enter your flight information, and then click the “Where is my plane now?” link just under the flight number. You’ll be able to see if the plane is ahead of schedule, on time or behind schedule and can take action accordingly.
GET AHEAD OF THE INFO CURVE
FlightAware also lets you sign up for alerts to be sent via email or text if there are changes associated with your flight. You can search by flight number or city pairing.
“FlightAware provides over half of the ETAs—Estimated Time of Arrival—to U.S. airlines, so we often know even before your airline does when a flight is delayed. Sometimes an airline cancellation will show up as a FlightAware alert before the airlines contact you. That gives you time to search and rebook your best option,” says Bangs.
DOWNLOAD THE AIRLINE APP
The moment your flight is canceled, droves of people will race to the service counter. But you’ll likely be able to book yourself on a new flight quicker on your smartphone. “Generally speaking, self service is usually the fastest,” says Keyes.
For the same reason, it’s also a good idea to program your airline’s customer service number into your phone’s contacts.
HAVE A PLAN B
Don’t wait until the last minute to figure out alternative flight options, should your flight be canceled. “Before you head to the airport, take a look at the schedule for departing flights for that day,” says Berg.
STICK CLOSE TO THE DEPARTURE GATE
There are situations, however, when you will need an airline agent’s help. “Bear in mind that it is very much a first come, first serve world,” says Keyes. “Being physically located close to the person who can help—the gate agent, the lounge agent, whoever it is—means you’re going to be the first one served.” This is especially useful if you see rolling delays.
“Be polite to the airline reps when you’re at the counter, at the gate desk, or on the phone during a long delay or cancellation,” advises Bangs. “Work with them to see if they can put you on a different carrier, or route you through a different city than what they’re offering.”
BOOK A SECOND FLIGHT
“I often get a back-up ticket, and have recycled unused tickets over and over and over,” says Bangs, noting it gives her peace of mind. “The odds of two different carriers, a couple hours apart, both getting canceled are still slim unless a widespread weather event occurs. On a carrier like Southwest Airlines, you can cancel up to 20 minutes before departure and still keep the ticket for future use.”
That’s an especially solid strategy now, says Keyes, because during the pandemic, airlines permanently got rid of change fees. “Now, once you book your flight, you’re not locked in like you used to be,” he says. “You can change your travel date, or even cancel for a flight credit, without having to pay any penalty like you used to pre-pandemic.”
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
“Federal law says that your if an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight, you’re entitled to a full cash refund—not just a flight credit,” says Keyes. One key exception is if the flight was canceled due to a weather-related event.
Should your flight be canceled, you have two options. “You can take your full cash refund, or, because the airline is still responsible for getting you to your final destination, you could take another flight,” he says.
“Just remember,” says Keyes, “you are entitled to that cash refund, so make sure that you don’t inadvertently just take the voucher.”
MORE FROM FORBES