Airlines and F.A.A. Try to Head Off Summer Travel Meltdowns

The number of Americans who will fly this summer could eclipse the prepandemic high from 2019. That would be great news for airlines, but it could also cause a backlash against the industry if it fails to keep up with demand and delays or cancels thousands of flights.

The recovery from the pandemic has been punctuated by several major travel meltdowns, stranding millions of travelers and angering lawmakers and regulators. In recent months, the Transportation Department has proposed requiring greater transparency around airline fees and requiring companies to more fully compensate people whose flights are delayed or canceled.

A major misstep could increase political pressure on lawmakers and regulators to take a harder line against airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs air traffic and has also had notable failures in recent years.

“A lot of focus is going to be on the airlines, and I don’t think they can afford to have a summer like they did last year,” said William J. McGee, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation in the airline business. “This pattern they had last year of canceling flights at the last minute, in many cases due to crew shortages, that’s just unacceptable. They’re not going to be able to do that again, I don’t think, not without some serious repercussions.”

Industry executives and F.A.A. officials say they made changes after recent disruptions and meltdowns that should make air travel less chaotic and more pleasant this summer than in recent years.

Nearly every major airline and the air traffic control system have suffered a meltdown at some point during the recovery from the pandemic.

Early on, when coronavirus vaccinations were still being developed and tested and restrictions prevented people from traveling, carriers encouraged thousands of employees to take buyouts or retire early even though the federal government had provided airlines with billions of dollars to pay employee salaries. When air travel quickly rebounded, airlines, like every other business, struggled to hire and train employees, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers.

Even when companies got a hold on hiring, airlines remained particularly susceptible to disruptions. During the holidays leading into 2022, a resurgent coronavirus sickened huge numbers of crew members, compounding problems caused by bad weather and resulting in thousands of flight cancellations nationwide.

Another problem: The aviation system uses technology and ways of doing business that were developed years or decades ago and are showing their age. Around Christmas last year, Southwest Airlines struggled to overcome bad storms because of insufficient equipment and inadequate crew scheduling software and practices, stranding millions of travelers. Weeks later, the F.A.A. briefly stopped all flights from taking off nationwide after a contractor deleted a file in a dated pilot alerting system.

The industry has put in place changes to minimize disruptions, including hiring more staff, reducing the number of flights and adding more resilience to their networks. They appear to be helping: Through early May, weather was by far the leading cause of flight delays, and cancellations were limited compared with 2019.

So far this year, air travel has returned to prepandemic levels, with more than 2.1 million people passing through airport checkpoints daily, as many as during the same period in 2019, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Airport traffic has already broken pandemic records on several days this May, according to the T.S.A.

But traffic could soon exceed even those 2019 volumes. This Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer travel season, is expected to be the third busiest in more than two decades, with 5.4 percent more people planning to fly than in the same weekend before the pandemic, according to the AAA travel club.

Dozens of major airports are also expected to see double-digit growth in traffic this summer, from last summer, according to Airlines for America, a trade association. That list includes airports serving big cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle and Denver. It also includes six hub airports for United Airlines, five for Delta Air Lines and four for American Airlines.

To keep flights running smoothly this summer, the F.A.A. is relaxing rules at some busy airports.

Those rules require airlines to use or lose takeoff and landing slots that they’ve been assigned. But by easing that requirement from mid-May to mid-September, the F.A.A. hopes to encourage carriers to fly fewer, larger planes without fear of losing their spots. The policy applies to the three major airports serving New York City, as well as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The F.A.A. said it had relaxed the rules partly because of a staffing shortfall at an air traffic control center that serves the New York airports and employs only about half its target number of air traffic controllers. Without the change, the F.A.A. said, flight delays this summer could increase up to 45 percent from last summer. The problems could reverberate nationwide because many flights connect in New York.

The F.A.A. has also said it has taken steps to better accommodate flights around space launches, which have increased, particularly in Florida but also in California and Texas. In early May, the agency announced that it had opened up 169 new routes, primarily at high altitudes and along the East Coast, to ease congestion.

Some airlines say they’ve prepared for summer by planning to use bigger planes, hiring more staff and more closely watching for early signs of disruptions.

At the F.A.A.’s request, several major airlines have agreed to fly less, but with bigger planes, at some busy airports. United, for example, said it planned to have 30 fewer daily departures out of its Newark hub than in the summer of 2019. But because it’s using larger planes, the airline said, it will offer 5 percent more seats in the New York area.

The airline, for example, has cut the number of round-trip flights between Newark and St. Louis to three a day this July from four a day last year. But because it swapped out one of the regional jets that it typically uses for a larger Airbus A319, United is offering 18 percent more seats on that route than last year.

“We very, very, very much want to fly a larger schedule,” said Patrick Quayle, a senior vice president for global network planning and alliances at United. “But what we care about most is running a reliable operation.”

Other airlines are also planning to use larger planes on certain routes, a practice that has accelerated in recent years and is known as “upgauging.” Airlines have scheduled about 5 percent more flights within the United States this summer than last summer, and about 10 percent more seats will be available, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider. Compared with the summer of 2019, airlines this summer will fly 10 percent fewer flights yet offer 3 percent more seats.

The industry has also aggressively recruited and trained new employees. As of March, passenger airlines employed the equivalent of nearly 487,000 full-time employees, the most since October 2001, according to an analysis of federal data by Airlines for America, the industry group. Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, recently said the airline had finished a hiring spree.

“The hiring rates that we’re at now are just normal hiring rates for normal attrition, not of the massive bulge that we needed to go through to restore the business,” Mr. Bastian told Wall Street analysts on a conference call in April. “And so not only are we able to reduce the focus on getting out and hiring people, we can take the people that have been doing the training and put them back in the business.”

Airlines have also tried to be smarter about spotting disruptions before they result in mass delays and cancellations. After its winter holiday debacle, Southwest said it would better use real-time data to keep tabs on the health of its network. American said it had also put into place a system called Heat, which would allow it to quickly delay and cancel flights in response to mounting problems while minimizing the number of customers affected.

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