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Why Airlines Keep Canceling Flights—and Will Yours Be Affected?

By Barbara Peterson

Jul 9, 2021

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Flights cancellations were the norm in 2020—but why are so many airlines dropping flights in 2021?

Photo by SynthEx/Shutterstock

Flights cancellations were the norm in 2020—but why are so many airlines dropping flights in 2021?

Pent-up demand has spurred a record number of fliers across the U.S. in recent weeks. But can airlines keep up?

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It’s official: Air travel is back. Around 10 million passengers passed through U.S. airports over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, a record volume for the pandemic. Summer bookings are approaching 2019 levels.

But that’s brought back some things we haven’t missed: packed planes, crowded airports, and, now, a rash of delayed and canceled flights.   

In recent weeks, flight snafus have become more common as major airlines add flights to their domestic schedules to meet increasing demand. While some delays can be attributed to severe weather, staffing shortages are also throwing a wrench into the system, airline sources say. Frustrated passengers have been airing their gripes on social media—and since flights are operating close to 90 percent full at peak times (holidays and weekends), it can be more difficult to get rebooked if something goes wrong. 

Two of the largest airlines in the country, American and Southwest, have been particularly affected by a series of complications, ranging from computer meltdowns to a spate of violent thunderstorms. Added to that is the uncertainty over how many pilots and flight attendants are ready to resume their duties. “What makes the summer of 2021 unusual is the coincidence of all these factors coming together, and at great intensity,” says Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest.

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Both airlines say they’ve been “proactively” scrubbing a small number of flights each day to lessen the strain on the system, but delays are still affecting thousands of flights every day, according to flightaware.com. Southwest has had as many as 40 percent of its flights delayed on busy days. The carrier’s schedule is based on high frequencies, meaning “an airplane can be in as many 10 cities in one day,” Hawkins points out. “We took delays to make sure as many people traveled on their scheduled flights as possible,” he adds, so that customers didn’t get stuck because of a lack of available open seats on other flights.

American said it is pre-emptively canceling about 1 percent of its scheduled flights through at least the middle of July, which equates to about 50 to 80 departures a day, according to an American spokeswoman.

Other major domestic airlines, such as Delta and United, have also said they are now actively hiring flight crew—in part because last year, many pilots at major airlines took early retirement. Airlines were prohibited from laying off workers as a condition of the $50 billion in federal aid they received during the pandemic, but thousands of workers left their jobs through buyouts, leaves of absences and other inducements.

Some observers say the airlines shouldn’t have loaded up their schedules so quickly until they had adequate staffing. “If you publish a schedule, you’re supposed to adhere to that schedule,” says William J. McGee, an aviation expert and author of the book Attention All Passengers.  

Avoid getting stranded at the airport with these tips

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Book the earliest flight out you can. “The first flight of the day is more important now than ever,” McGee says. “You should book that 6 a.m. departure,” as delays tend to pile up later in the day.

Try to take a nonstop over a connection if you can, even if that means an increase in airfare. As McGee notes,“Why double your chances of a problem if you can avoid it?”

Arrive at the airport earlier than usual. That’s because full flights mean any disruption can have a wider impact on operations. “The higher the load factors go, the more the system implodes when things go wrong,” he adds.

Southwest also said that it’s urging fliers to get to the airport earlier than usual and to prepare for crowded conditions—at all stages of the journey. “Travelers are facing unforeseen delays such as scarce parking and long checkpoint lines, long before they can get to a gate,” the airline says.

Flight booking site Hopper recommends building some buffer time into your plans. “If you’re traveling for a special event, you may consider flying in a day early,” Hopper advises. The company also offers a “rebooking protection” feature that gives travelers the option of choosing a flight on another airline if their flight is disrupted or canceled.

Know your rights as a flier

Airlines don’t guarantee their flight schedules, and travelers need to keep that in mind when planning their itineraries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which publishes a “fly rights” manual on its website.

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In effect, that means airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled—most of these disruptions can be chalked up to problems like foul weather that are deemed beyond the company’s control.  Compensation is required by U.S. law only when passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold.

But you still have options. Each airline has its own policy as to what it will do for delayed passengers, from providing snacks to covering the cost of a hotel stay. If you’re not offered any help, the squeaky wheel approach can often yield results.

What do you do if your flight is canceled

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight that has available seats. As airline technology has improved, you can often take care of this process by using your carrier’s app on your smartphone or a self-serve kiosk if you’re at the airport. Some airlines are going a bit further: American says that it’s giving stranded passengers a special number that it claims will connect them to a reservations agent in less than 30 seconds.

Here’s one thing you might not know: You’re entitled to a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket, if the airline cancels your trip, not you. Depending on where you are in your journey, you might simply want to call it a day and get your money back.

>>Next: The Best (and Cheapest) Flights to Europe in 2021

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