Summer 2022 is now infamous for being a tough one for travelers.
People wanted to get out there again, and although airlines posted record profits, they also canceled a huge number of flights, and nearly a quarter of all trips were delayed by 15 minutes or more.
“No one can say that the airlines had an operationally good summer,” Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry strategic research firm, told USA TODAY. “No airline executive on the recent earnings calls was giving his airline a gold ribbon or blue star for summer performance.”
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For travelers, this summer was a low point in terms of getting around with minimal stress.
The good news is: things seem to be getting better.
How did airlines perform this summer?
The short answer: Not well.
According to Department of Transportation data, more than 45,000 flights – almost 2.5% of all scheduled services – were canceled between June 1 and Aug. 31. And over 413,000 flights (22.5%) were delayed by 15 minutes or more in that same period.
Some airlines performed even worse than the average. American Airlines canceled around 4.5% of its flights (more than 10,000 of them) in June, July and August. That number doesn’t even include regional American Eagle or code-shared operations.
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“It means almost 1 in 20 American Airlines flights were canceled,” Harteveldt said. “If an airline is canceling a noticeable number of flights, and in American’s case, 4.5% of flights were canceled during June, July and August, that undermines consumer trust in an airline.”
Are airlines getting more reliable?
Airline executives took a hard look at what went wrong this summer and CEO after CEO said on recent earnings calls that they were committed to running a more reliable operation heading into the winter.
Some problems are out of an airline’s control, like weather or air traffic control staffing, both of which certainly caused issues this summer. But other factors can contribute to delays, too, including how a carrier schedules its planes and crews.
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Tight scheduled turnarounds and staffing rosters left thin by the pandemic conspired to cause cascading delays for many airlines this summer. A single storm or issue at one airport often caused delays that rippled through their networks and sometimes took days to recover from.
Now, many airlines are adjusting their service plans to avoid a repeat of some of those problems during the holiday travel season.
“We are seeing the airlines generally performing much more reliably since the summer peak,” Harteveldt said. “New processes in place, allocating more aircraft for standby use. Making sure you have an adequate number of pilots and flight attendants ready to step in.”
Tips for holiday travel
Airlines are working to be more reliable this winter, including by hiring more staff and scheduling flights more rationally, but not every delay or cancellation is in their control. Winter storms can cause big issues, but there are things travelers can do to minimize their risk of running into problems or getting stranded.
Most experts recommend booking the earliest flight of the day. Those are the least likely to get canceled as delays haven’t had a chance to domino across an airline’s network first thing in the morning.
If you need to be somewhere for a specific event, it’s a good idea to travel at least a day or two in advance in case something does go wrong. And, avoiding checking a bag whenever possible can help minimize complications if an airline’s baggage operation goes south.
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Many experts also say it’s a good idea to get travel insurance. This way, if something does go awry, you can get reimbursed for extra expenses.
Keep in mind: if an airline cancels your flight for just about any reason, you’re entitled to a full refund even if you purchased a nonrefundable ticket. Check out the DOT’s dashboard for more information on major airline policies around cancellations and delays.
And above all, be flexible and patient this winter. Airlines are still working their way back to full capacity after the pandemic, and there continue to be growing pains. But the employees you encounter on your trip are the ones who are there for you.