The U.S. government may take action against airlines on consumers’ behalf amid numerous flight cancellations in recent weeks, including more than 2,000 that were canceled on June 18 and early on June 19, according to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“That is happening to a lot of people, and that is exactly why we are paying close attention here to what can be done and how to make sure that the airlines are delivering,” Buttigieg said on June 18, saying that he had met with airline industry leaders a day earlier.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, stated that his office would first determine how airlines handle increased travel associated with the Fourth of July holiday before the federal government takes any action. He also didn’t elaborate on what his agency might do.
“Now we’re going to see how those steps measure up,” Buttigieg said.
Some 2,700 flights were canceled on Memorial Day weekend, according to data from FlightAware. FlightAware also said about 700 U.S. flights were scrapped as of early on June 19, after about 1,300 flights were canceled a day earlier.
Major airline companies have already signaled that they have cut numerous flights through Labor Day weekend over worker shortages.
Southwest Airlines has canceled over 20,000 flights this season, and Delta Air Lines has cut over 700 flights since late last month, saying it expects to cancel 100 flights per day between July 1 and Aug. 7 across North and South America.
A letter posted by Delta pilots on June 16 said they had been flying a “record amount of overtime” hours amid cancellations.
“At the current rate, by this fall, our pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than in the entirety of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date,” the pilots said in their letter. “We empathize and share in your frustration over the delays, cancellations, and disrupted travel plans you’ve experienced. We agree; it is unacceptable.”
While weather is always a wild card when it comes to summer travel, airlines have also acknowledged staffing shortages as the industry roared back faster than expected from pandemic lows. Airlines are scrambling to hire pilots and other workers to replace employees whom they encouraged to quit after the pandemic hit and as airline companies fired thousands of workers for not complying with their COVID-19 vaccine mandates in 2021.
It takes months to hire and train a pilot to meet federal safety standards, although the Department of Transportation sees no reason the airlines can’t immediately add customer service representatives to help passengers rebook if a flight is canceled. The government has its own staffing challenges.
“The pilot shortage for the industry is real, and most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren’t enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said several months ago on a call.
Some airline unions, however, said there’s no pilot shortage. They said airlines are merely trying to extract more money from consumers.
“The United States is producing a record number of pilots, yet some are still trying to claim we need to weaken aviation safety rules to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. That’s why it’s so important we have frontline aviation safety experts—our pilots—on Capitol Hill this week to make sure decision-makers know the facts, and what’s at stake,” said Air Lines Pilot Association (ALPA) President Captain Joe DePete on June 7.
Shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), part of Buttigieg’s department, have contributed to flight delays in Florida. The FAA promises to increase staffing there.
The Transportation Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, has created a roving force of 1,000 screeners who can be dispatched to airports where checkpoint lines get too long.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.