I’m Numb To Airline Meltdowns, Here’s What’s Going On

This is shaping up to be one wet, hot American airline summer. Things are rough for passengers out there. Cancellations mount. We expect that from some airlines, but it’s become universal, even for the once-reliable Delta.

A reader asked why I haven’t covered this past weekend’s drama. The truth is I’ve gotten numb it all because it is largely the same story week after week with passengers stranded amidst cancellations, and with flights full there’s no slack – very few seats for people to get rebooked onto – which means that the consequences of cancellations are greater than ever.

  • Customers can’t even get through to their airline for help
  • And when they do get through the airline may not have seats to offer them for days

The story is largely this:

  1. Insufficient staff to operate schedule. Airlines shed staff during the pandemic, despite over $50 billion in direct federal payments to keep everyone employed ‘so the airlines would be ready to fly when customers returned.’

    They pocketed the subsidies and found (mostly but not entirely) legal ways to still drop employees. Delta actually reduced employee headcount 31%.

  2. They’re hiring back people but on the non-union/management side many are green, it’s not just number of employees but experience, they lost a lot of people who knew how to run airlines.

  3. Schedules exceeding system throughput, airlines get most of the blame here for their schedules, and there’s insufficient attention directed at capacity — from airport security (mostly not just regulated but actually performed by the TSA, a worst-practice to have the government service provider self-regulate as well as being unaccountable for throughput) to air traffic control (where again the same agency regulates and performs service, which is an anomaly in world aviation, NavCanada is private and far more efficient for instance).

  4. Airlines blame weather and of course there’s always weather, but when airlines are short-staffed they run through available reserve crews faster as a result of weather events and so they run out of crew to operate flights. This gets especially bad at the end of a month.

Here’s how you want to approach travel:

  • Build in a buffer. Get to the airport early. Of course you might find security isnt’ as long as you expect and so you want lounge access, but lounges are crowded and Delta now won’t even let you in until three hours before flight. PreCheck and CLEAR reduce but do not eliminate the need for an arrival buffer. Consider longer connecting times, too.

  • Travel earlier in the day because delays stack and the more flights your aircraft needs to operate before yours the greater chance something goes wrong. Summer weather especially in the Northeast tends to get worse later in the day too.

  • Consider booking backup options. Mileage tickets are often refundable, so maybe book an American Airlines award ticket for later in the day or the next evening after paid United travel. (While United’s policy is that US-originating awards cancelled within 30 days of travel incur a fee, I will have a post tomorrow on avoiding that fee.)

  • What credit card you use matters Many – especially Chase and Capital One cards – include trip delay coverage that will pay for a hotel room and meals during long delays (reimbursing up to $500).

  • Don’t rely on anyone else. Always be doing your own searches for available itineraries to get rebooked on so you know what to ask for, even if it just means searching for an itinerary to buy on Expedia.

  • Know how to get help. There’s the gate and customer service counter and kiosks and club. When you can’t reach American Airlines customer service by phone (1) they’re pretty good via twitter DM and (2) call an English -language foreign call center. For Delta there’s a dedicated number with priority for travel within 48 hours: 1-855-548-2505 that generally gets answered pretty quickly.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You need to cover the complete meltdown Air Canada is having.
    Less than a quarter of the flights are leaving on time, you cant get through on the phone to anybody.
    Airport customer service lines are 5+ hours long.

  2. I was offered $650 to $1150 to switch today from my LAX-MIA nonstop (in Y). I have business so I can’t, but I doubt whether I could get anything better than a middle seat connecting redeye.

    Given that I’m in a domestic configured PE seat, no way even if I had the time. .

  3. I’d say Greyhound of the skies but that would be insulting Greyhound.
    How are the LCC’s doing?

  4. Leaving Tampa to KY, on Friday, my Dad was delayed four hours getting home on Delta. On Saturday, our Southwest flight was cancelled but fortunately had back up on Delta and that was on time. Keep trying to use expiring funds at Southwest but to no avail.

  5. Seems to me airfares are too low. Double or triple them and the problem solves itself.
    There is no reason every chav should travel. And certainly not families with children. How decadent! Let them stay home and play board games by candlelight, instead of going bankrupt by visiting woke Disneyword.

  6. Got a good on one this. Delta has 7 hour hold times this weekend, so the gate agent tells me to use the app to rebook. Tried that…the app re-booked me the next day and removed my first class PAID seat on one leg of the trip. Next day, I asked ticket agent about this and she says “Yea the app is buggy and does not make this clear that it will do that, you should have come to me to rebook.”

    Argh! Fortunately we did get home and the Delta FAs were top notch in coach.

  7. I’m with Ed. Brand me as anti-family but I have traveled summers enough seeing more and more seats occupied by mostly unruly children with obnoxious helicopter moms. As for the airlines, I come from an airline family so for me this is especially sad and disgraceful. Covid has some nasty lingering unforseen side effects.

  8. AA Flight out of Reagan to Birmingham Thursday evening RETURNED to Reagan mid-flight because crew would be over FAA regulated work time before we got to B’ham. Astonishingly poor planning. Of course the flight was then cancelled, AA site not helpful, huge lines for help at the airport to re-book, no vouchers for hotels………

  9. You’re giving away a big secret for elites. ALL of my trips this summer have been booked for months with backups (mostly using mileage tickets). Without redundancies in place, it’s basically letting these carriers play Russian roulette with your time and schedule. We need EU-style protections ASAP. The argument that fares will raise is a joke at this point; we’re already being gouged for terrible, non-existent service.

  10. When flying with Delta Airlines, the hour you save using CLEAR and PreCheck allows travelers the opportunity to stand in line for two hours while they wait for admittance to a congested Delta Sky Club. Upon entry, due to a lack of staffing, passengers may encounter no empty tables, waiting for food, and standing room only.

  11. What’s the best strategy? Stick with major airports and fly non-stop or start at a smaller airport and connect through a hub? LAX to JFK or ONT to PHX/DEN/DFW/SLC/IAH/ORD/ATL to JFK?

  12. Charlotte was a mess Friday evening 6/17/22. My flight to TYS on AA kept getting moved back 30 minutes at a time until finally at around 10:00 p.m. they cancelled it. Our crew was on a flight from Birmingham that had a mechanical. Gate agent was zero assistance. “We don’t have any more hotel rooms to give out.” Nothing available on Saturday. Received a text that AA was working to rebook me. Finally got a flight schedule for Sunday 6/19 at 2:34 in the afternoon. Finally found a young man who booked me standby on the 10:00 p.m. flight that wasn’t leaving until almost midnight. Made it on that flight but lost my F/C seat. Instead of getting home at 7:30 it was 2:00 a.m. Many people just cancelled their trip and went back home. Just a typical horrible experience with AA. I swore off CLT but have reconsidered and will be taking the red eye to CLT and then if things go sideways my wife can drive over and pick me up. I’d rather have 4 hours in a car than 3 days in Charlotte. I’m not even going to mention the service from AA.

  13. You are not putting enough blame on the FAA for air traffic control delays. Weather rarely prevents a plane from landing at an airport but ATC delays make it impossible for airlines to operate into airports if the FAA imposes delays.
    Airlines couldn’t build flight schedules around reduced ATC staffing and while it is true that airlines burn through reserve crews faster, ATC delays this year are far longer and greater for the same types of weather that was seen in the past.

    It also needs to be said that travel plans should include a non-air travel option to either get home or a place where you can affordably go if you are significantly delayed. There should not be the number of people that travel expecting everything to go well and then are financially hurt including missing work because of delays.

    The entire global economy is messed up in its recovery from covid; I’m not sure why anyone expects that air travel in the US should be any different. It is as bad if not worse in many European airports and the same thing could well happen in Asia as it reopens.

  14. Delta mileage tickets are not always refundable. Had to cancel flight after positive covid test one day before return to USA. Delta refused to refund.

  15. Another long term solution is to get Precheck. It saves a lot of time and avoids the chamber of horrors that so many of the Americans who sing about being “brave and free” willingly go through for the TSA.

    Incidentally while a privatized air traffic control system may be more efficient but as a for-profit operation also has the real potential to seriously increase costs for passengers. At the least it could help destroy a lot of general aviation when operating under instrument flight rules. It also might “cut costs” by reducing needed but unprofitable services.

  16. I really think this is just going to be THAT kind of summer. Especially from now until August. You have people who booked trips like crazy after essentially 2 summers of COVID. Business travel is coming back. It’s like a passenger storm.

    I had a trip to ATL thru RDU 2 weeks ago and the lounges were totally manageable and not crowded. I got lucky for sure.

    In August, the kids in some parts of the country go back to school and by September the rest of them do and college starts up again.

    I have one trip in mid-August and that’s it till the fall.

    Oh yeah…and the back-up trip trick…that’ a real thing!

  17. Presumably Chase/CapOne (and/or their reinsurers) are paying out way more in trip delay payments this year than they expected. Will we see this benefit reduced in the future or other cutbacks as a result?

  18. I got caught up in a Southwest Airlines meltdown during President’s Day in 2021, when innumerable flights were cancelled. Southwest blamed the meltdown on isolated weather issues, though commentators at the time pointed out that it was likely related to staffing issues associated with the Covid vaccine requirement. I submitted a claim for trip delay insurance for a hotel and car rental expense to my AmEx platinum card, including sreenshots of text messages and website notices indicating my specific flight had been cancelled due to bad weather. The AmEx trip delay insurer, IAG, requested a formal letter from Southwest regarding the delay. I requested the same from Southwest, and the letter referenced “crew rest” for the delay, and my claim was denied because staffing problems are not a covered event. While I let it go, this outcome didn’t seem quite right to me as there had been conflcting causes listed for the delay from the airline. I’m curious if Chase and/or Capital One provides broader coverage than AmEx for trip delays associated with staffing issues.

  19. The value of elite status has never meant more than this year.

    I have had varying problems with domestic flights, but EXP status with AA meant getting to the front of the line for changes when flights got delayed. So far, nothing worse than a 90-minute delay (MCO, natch, complete with screaming banshees), but being proactive about every single flight I take, seeing where it is coming from, etc., has made the difference.

    The real problems for me this year have been in Europe — coming and going from Amsterdam were awful (mitigated by elite status on the outbound), and three out of four connections thru Heathrow were a mess of cancelled or delayed flights.

    Headed on another Europe journey next month that will involve 3 different US carriers PLUS a roundtrip on a charter flight. Since I only have status on one of those legs, that’s going to be interesting. I hoping the worst of this will have shaken out by then.

  20. Airline meltdowns are like data breaches. The companies are “really sorry” and “take it seriously”. It’s all hot air and absolutely nothing changes. It will continue to happen and we’ll continue to get useless hot air from a bunch of people who couldn’t care less (the C-Suite). Unless any real penalties payable to those directly affected ever happen, nothing will change.

    Like you Gary, when I travel and there is a connection, I take early flights and leave plenty of time for connections. If I absolutely need to be somewhere on a particular day, I go the day before to leave buffer time. Never take flights that will arrive very late at night before an early morning. These are just common sense I think.

    It boggles my mind how airlines sell insanely short connections like 35 minutes at mega airports (like ATL or DFW). I’ve had missed connections when there was 1.5 hours of time so I learned my lesson long ago. I hadn’t thought of having a mileage ticket booked on standby just incase. Not a bad thought there!

  21. “Delta has a dedicated number with priority for travel within 48 hours: 1-855-548-2505.” This number doesn’t work for me. I got caught up on a sick-flight-attendant-relayed delay yesterday. Luckily, the Platinum line was answered with a ten-minute call back. Status does have some benefits.

  22. This is why using American’s ridiculous credit cards is an idea dead to me for their own airline tickets. I use Chase cards every time for this reason precisely.

  23. UA2059 from SFO -> EWR last Wednesday night diverted to Dulles due to EWR Wx and then had rolling delays for 8 hours until they could get their act together, then it still took 4 hours to fly IAD to EWR with gate and ATC delays. Refused to provide any food vouchers even though 2/3 of the delay was clearly staffing. One pax sitting behind me (paid $1400 for premium econ) was offered a food voucher via text after we had already left IAD and were sitting through a tarmac delay. So generous

  24. Taking it all in stride and adjusting your expectations is key. SFO was an absolute disaster last week, but a few things really help.

    One, get the freaking PreCheck. Regular security line, based on overheard conversations, was closing in on two hours at SFO. PreCheck about 20 min. At SAN on way up, about 10 min. It’s $85 for five years. $17/year is some of the best travel money you’ll ever spend.

    Second, purchase lounge membership with an airline upon which you fly a lot. I fly up/down west coast out of San Diego and Alaska not only has an outstanding schedule out of SAN, but maintains a solid network of superb lounges at many major, west coast airports.

    At those without an Alaska lounge, the membership gets you into many affiliated lounges around the country such as the American lounges.

    It is such a serene joy leaving the concourse chaos behind as you slip though the doors, grab a gratis cocktail and take a seat at the window while you wait for your inevitably delayed flight to arrive. The Alaska staff can also help you with changes.

    They can be a little pricey, but if you fly with any regularity it is again, money well spent. And as a member you don’t have to stress about which card gets you access to what lounge. You know you’re always welcome.

    A third action I’ve found helpful lately is not booking flights in the first wave out. I’ve been departing mid-mornings and everything seems less stressful.

    Let’s face it, with the present clown show in Washington, it’s going to be awhile before air travel gets noticeably better, let alone return to a more 2019-type experience.

    These actions, and no mask-nazis, have made air travel bearable.

    May they do the same for you…

  25. Ownership has nothing to do with anything. London’s Heathrow is private and is a hot mess. Doha Hamad Airport, Dubai Airport and Singapore’s Changi are amongst the world’s best and are all majority government owned/run.

    Time to focus on travel facts, not Fox News political fiction.

  26. This is exactly what you get from Trump giving away $54 billion of our money to airlines with no string attached and zero accountability. The big Steal.

  27. Oh @Amy… the issue isn’t what Trump did two years ago. The issue is what the present administration is doing about it now.

    Short answer is, nothing.

  28. Yeah @ Magnifico…the guy who couldn’t figure out how to turn a profit running casinos (literally the easiest business model ever!) knew what he was doing in other even more complicated matters?

    Please…the only place he never failed was in Vietnam…because he was too scared to go!

    The airlines did get that money form the Trump administration. I know facts are hard…but try looking it up someplace OTHER than Fake Fox News.

    As for the airlines…they’re no angels here either.

    They over scheduled…laid off workers when they shouldn’t have (looking at you Delta and your 31% reduction) and there’s a pilot shortage everywhere (which they also saw coming).

    And, it’s even worse internationally. Things will settle down in Sept. but till then…?

  29. You poor thang @wb… Amazing how with just a few sentences I can elicit such a frothing, bed-wetting, diatribe from you. Almost scary to have this much power.

    So you’re saying, between the sobs, that the present administration is so incompetent they can’t do anything to address the present airport misery because Trump two years ago.

    Got it…

  30. Ha ha…@Magnifico…with a name like that…only confirms the tool you are! Why is it you Trumpers are always obsessed with “power”. Oh well, I guess when you have none…

    BTW…blame…isn’t that what Trump, the guy who acts like a massively overweight five year old, did when he complained he couldn’t fight Covid because…AND I QUOTE…”the cupboards were bare…Obama left us nothing”. Only problem was Obama left those imaginary cupboards 3 years before!

    And actually….what I AM saying is that the present issues the industry is facing is largely due to its own shortsightedness. They’ll figure it out…and you, of course, are free to take the bus!

  31. Works every time lol…

    Blame, dear @wb, is what you’re doing now. No wonder you love hapless Joe.

    Please note, far fewer people died from the Wuhan Flu under Biden than under Trump. Those pesky facts ruining your narrative yet again!

    Anyway, as noted above, I still enjoy flying nearly every week. Maybe it’s the lounge privileges. Save your nickels and someday you can enjoy a lounge too!

    Try not to soil yourself when responding this time…

  32. @ Magnifico:

    Ha ha…you do manage to live up to the tool thing on the reg don’t ya?

    Trust me my little cockroach…I was hanging out in the airport lounge when it was actually exclusive. Ya know…back when you were still a stain in your fathers underwear.

    BTW…here’s YOUR quote: “Please note, far fewer people died from the Wuhan Flu under Biden than under Trump.”

    Way to make your point…so it was a good thing that more people died while Trump was President? Not so magnifico…Magnifico!

  33. You’re right… Biden has killed far more people than ever died from Whuan under Trump. That all ya got?

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