Canceled flights, lighter schedules caused by takeoff in demand to travel

People stand in an airport.
People arrive for flights at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport on April 19.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News File

If you decided to fly someplace for the Memorial Day holiday, it probably was not fun. Six-thousand global flights were canceled starting Friday with hundreds more flights delayed. Delta Airlines with the Twin Cities hub canceled more than 500 domestic and international flights Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Is this just a preview of a miserable summer travel season? Maybe. The head of the TSA says to “pack added patience when you travel this summer.” MPR News asked Kyle Potter, the executive editor of the Thrifty Traveler website, to help break down the air travel troubles.

The following is an edited transcript for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

There seems to have been a laundry list of issues that developed over the weekend, what went wrong?

You know, to use the cliché, it was a perfect storm. It was everything from some pockets of bad weather in the southeast, there were air traffic control issues, there's an overarching problem across the airline industry of pilot shortages. And then there clearly are airlines — Delta in particular — that are suffering with crews being out due to COVID infections. So you add all of these things up, and the wheels just came off, and they came off particularly badly for Delta.

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And then Delta announced — Thursday, I believe — it's cutting its summer flight schedule. How's that going to add to woes?

It's good news and bad news. The bad news is, is that there are people out there who have Delta reservations coming up through early August, who really need to go look at those reservations and see how they may have changed because Delta is trying to thin its schedule out. Cut out some flights in hopes that it can give itself some wiggle room to avoid summer troubles and repeat mass cancellations on the day of the flights.

The good news is, if they did enough, we're not going to see a repeat of what we saw over Memorial Day weekend. But the writing is on the wall, I think, because Delta did this heading into the Memorial Day travel weekend. And we still saw, you know, 700-plus cancellations from Friday through Sunday. That was more than Delta canceled in the entire summer of 2019. I mean, there are some very clear problems.

And look, this is much bigger than Delta. This is a very baked-in problem across the airline industry that every single airline in the country — big and small — is not big enough, is not giving itself enough wiggle room to recover when things go wrong. So when you see bad storms, when we see pilot or crew issues or air traffic control problems, they don't have the staffing to recover without canceling flights.

How fast can airlines staff up? Or is this just going to be something they're going to deal with for years?

You know, my hope is that this isn't a yearslong problem. But this is not a problem that you can solve in a matter of weeks. You know, whether we're talking about flight attendants, and in particular pilots. This is a monthlong process of bringing people on board and getting them certified and ready to fly.

Delta and other airlines have been talking a lot about their hiring programs and just how much they're staffing up. But the problem right now is none of these airlines can grow fast enough to cope with the travel demand the way it's rising right now. I think it's safe to say that there are going to be continued concerns and problems throughout the summer travel season. And we'll just have to see where things go from there.

Delays, cancellations. Fares are really expensive. I think travelers were surprised at that.

They're surprised but you know what? The problems that are leading to these delays and cancellations, it's really the same thing that's causing these rising fare prices. It's supply and demand.

The supply of flights is not where it was in 2019 because all of these airlines downsized, they retired jets, they encourage pilots and crews to retire early or take buyout packages and travel demand has just found a new gear within the last several weeks.

And these airlines aren't big enough to meet it. And that means that prices go up. And that means that when things go wrong, problems happen. And then you add in the rising cost of jet fuel, which clearly is a huge expense for the airlines, that is not helping either. But just this past week, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said to expect summer fare prices to increase another 25 to 30 percent above what we're seeing already. Which you know, for me is about as high as I've seen in at least the last five years.

Last minute advice for travelers?

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Look even on the worst day 75-plus percent of flights are getting out on time and arriving on time, but the prospect for problems is about as high as it's ever been. So watch your reservations, watch the news for problems with your airline and prepare to deal with some problems and hope you don't have to.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.