DALLAS – Flight cancellations have always been a part of air travel. These disruptions aren’t necessarily new, but they’ve recently risen at historic rates. Virtually every major airline is canceling more flights than usual.
Aviation has faced its fair share of turbulence amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but recovery hasn’t played out how many airlines hoped it would. Travel is ramping up again, but the industry seems incapable of managing this resurgence right now.
The sector must determine where these problems stem from if it hopes to reverse this trend. Here’s why airlines are canceling more flights and what they can do about it.
Recent Flight Cancellation Trends
Summer normally represents a peak for the industry, but it’s proven to be a source of frustration for businesses and customers alike this year. Airlines have canceled more than 15% of their scheduled flights and delayed even more. Schedules around holidays like the Fourth of July and Father’s Day saw particularly high disruption.
Airlines canceled more than 1,100 flights and delayed more than 12,000 in the first weekend of July alone. American Airlines (AA) saw nearly 30% of its weekend flights disrupted, and Delta Air Lines (DL) delayed or canceled roughly a quarter of its flights.
Large airlines felt the brunt of this flight cancellation wave, but smaller companies weren’t exempt. JetBlue (B6), Spirit (NK), and similar airlines have reduced their schedules and offered bonuses to incentivize workers to minimize future disruptions.
Why Airlines Are Canceling More Flights
Several factors are pushing airlines to cancel more flights than usual, all coming together to form a perfect storm of disruptions. The industry must recognize and adapt to these obstacles to move past this trend.
Most airlines have blamed labor challenges as the public has grown increasingly vocal over flight cancellations. It’s not the only factor at play, but the ongoing worker shortage is perhaps the most substantial.
Airlines collectively lost 50,000 workers amid the pandemic and have struggled to draw them back. Pilots account for many of these employees, forcing airlines to outright cancel flights in light of absences and shortages instead of simply delaying them. The profession’s extensive training requirements and high barriers to entry also make it difficult to fill positions quickly.
Some air traffic control centers have been understaffed almost every day for a month, further complicating the situation. The government has ramped up efforts to fill open positions, but labor challenges persist, making it difficult to serve rising demand.
Weather conditions have exacerbated the current wave of airlines canceling flights. In some instances, this factor has been a matter of poor timing. Storms during the Fourth of July weekend added to the already hectic schedule for many flights. However, extreme weather is becoming a more common obstacle on a larger scale.
Climate change has already spurred enough extreme weather to threaten food supplies, and these conditions can affect flights, too. Once-rare events like severe storms will become more frequent as the Earth’s climate continues to shift to extremes. Consequently, weather-related cancellations are also becoming a more familiar sight.
Weather already accounts for 69% of air traffic delays, more than any other factor. These delays also peak in the summer, coinciding with the recent rise in post-lockdown travel demand.
Ongoing COVID-Related Disruptions
International flights still face COVID-related complications, too. Many countries have loosened their travel restrictions, but resurging outbreaks continue to muddy the waters. Several nations reimposed lockdowns amid rising cases when the omicron variant arose, and similar episodes could continue to disrupt schedules.
COVID-19 impacts flight cancellations through more than just lockdown regulations, too. Even if there are no restrictions at play, outbreaks can still cause disruptions if employees contract the virus. Sick people may be unable or not allowed to work, exacerbating the ongoing worker shortage. In some cases, airlines may not have enough available staff to fill in.
Outbreaks are more likely to happen in more populated areas, too. Consequently, the busiest airports may be at the greatest risk of sickness-related understaffing, leading to more canceled or delayed flights.
All these factors could cause significant disruption on their own, but growing demand has compounded their impact. More people are looking to fly than airlines have seen since before the pandemic due to loosened travel restrictions. This surge may be expected, but many airlines were ill-equipped to manage it amid other disruptions.
North American air traffic in April 2022 rose 230.2% over April 2021 after similar growth the month prior. Total demand remains below pre-pandemic levels, but it’s mostly recovered in many markets. However, most airlines still lack needed staffing levels, and weather and COVID-related issues persist.
Demand hasn’t necessarily skyrocketed, but it has grown faster than airlines can keep pace, given their other obstacles. Consequently, labor shortages and weather have had a more extreme impact on flight cancellations.
How Can the Industry Respond?
Many of these factors are outside airlines’ control, but they can take several mitigation steps. Most of these fixes revolve around labor issues.
Automation can be a helpful tool amid worker shortages. Airlines can’t entirely automate pilots’ jobs, but back-office automation can streamline operations and improve processes to free employees to focus on more value-adding tasks. They can then spend more time adjusting schedules or managing customer service to find alternative solutions to canceling flights.
Similarly, automation can streamline employee onboarding. Many people left the industry for flexible working conditions, so airlines can offer more flexibility and better pay to encourage more applications. Reducing workloads through new software and improving internal communication can help make the industry more enticing, too.
Airlines should also invest more in data analytics and adapt to developing situations. Businesses that can accurately forecast demand and relevant obstacles can adjust flight schedules to avoid cancellations. Flight right-sizing and reduced schedules may result in fewer options for customers but will prevent outright cancellations.
These obstacles are significant, so airlines’ current challenges will likely persist for some time. Some amount of cancellations is inevitable, but the industry can adapt to mitigate disruptions in the future. The process starts with understanding the root causes of why airlines are canceling more flights and making necessary improvements.
Featured image: American Eagle (Republic Airways) N447YX Embraer E175. Photo: Arturo La Roche/Airways