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Southwest, American delays hint at hard summer for travelers

Southwest Airlines plane takes off from McCarran International Airport in Paradise, Nevada. | Credit: Stephen Keller / Southwest Airlines

If you're planning to fly this summer, bring plenty of patience. Airlines are already struggling to keep up with the rising number of passengers as the number of Americans getting on planes is at a pandemic-era high.

Posted: Jul 5, 2021 3:40 PM
Updated: Jul 6, 2021 11:32 AM

(AP) - This summer is already shaping up to be a difficult one for air travelers.

Southwest Airlines customers have struggled with thousands of delays and hundreds of canceled flights in the past three weeks because of computer problems, staffing shortages and bad weather.

American Airlines is also grappling with a surge in delays, and it has trimmed its schedule through mid-July at least in part because it doesn't have enough pilots, according to the pilots' union.

At the same time, the number of Americans getting on planes is at a pandemic-era high. Just under 2.2 million travelers were screened at U.S. airports on Friday, the highest number since early March 2020.

Travelers are posting photos of long airport lines and describing painful flights.

“It was ridiculously crowded,” Tracey Milligan said of airports after a round trip from her New Jersey home to Miami last week.

Milligan and her 6-year-old daughter endured hours-long delays on both legs of the trip. Before the flight to Florida, she said, JetBlue agents first told passengers there was a discrepancy with the plane's weight, then they were missing three crew members because the airline was short-staffed, then there was a weather delay.

“I really wanted to start screaming and cursing everybody out, but that doesn't get you anywhere, and security will come and remove you from the plane,” she said.

At least the passengers on Milligan's flights kept their cool. Airlines have seen a surge in unruly passengers, and some experts predict it will get worse this summer as planes become even more crowded.

There have been more than a dozen days in June and July when more than 2 million travelers went through U.S. airports, according to figures from the Transportation Security Administration. Airlines say that domestic leisure travel is back to 2019 levels, although the lack of business travelers means that overall, the number of passengers over the past week is still down slightly compared with the same days in 2019.

For the July Fourth weekend, U.S. airlines scheduled nearly twice as many flights between Thursday and Monday as they did over the same days last year, according to data from aviation researcher Cirium.

The weekend highlights the rapid turnaround boosting an industry that was fighting for survival last year. The recovery has been faster than many expected — including, apparently, the airlines themselves.

Since the start of the pandemic, U.S. airlines have received $54 billion in federal aid to help cover payroll expenses. In return, they were prohibited from furloughing or laying off workers. However, they were allowed to persuade tens of thousands of employees to take buyouts, early retirement or leaves of absence.

Now some are finding they don’t have enough people in key roles, including pilots.

As Southwest officials braced for crowded flights over the holiday weekend, they offered to double pay for flight attendants and other employees who agree to extra work through Wednesday.

“The staffing shortage is across the board. On the pilot side, it's a training backlog," said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “Southwest came into the summer with very little margin.”

Murray said many pilots coming back from leave are still getting federally required training to refresh their skills and aren't yet eligible to fly. When storms cause long delays, pilots can reach their FAA limit on the number of hours they are allowed to work, and there aren't enough backups to step in, he said. On top of that, he said, Southwest pushed for an “aggressive” summer schedule to capitalize on rising travel demand.

Since June 14, Southwest has averaged more than 1,300 daily flights delays — a staggering 40% of its schedule — according to figures from tracking service Flightaware.com.

Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said most delays were caused by weather, and that with fewer flights than before the pandemic, it's harder for Southwest to recover from long thunderstorms.

At American Airlines, unions say labor shortages are contributing to delays and the scrubbing of up to 80 flights a day from the schedule through mid-July. In echoes of Southwest, the pilots' union at American said management did not act quickly enough to retrain 1,600 pilots who were temporarily furloughed then rehired last year or replace the 1,000 who retired.

Delta canceled dozens of flights over Thanksgiving last year and again around Easter this year because of staffing problems.

Airlines that pushed people to quit a year ago are now beginning to hire again, which could help fix staffing shortages. Delta, for example, plans to hire more than 1,000 pilots by next summer, starting with about 75 by this August.

Passengers whose flights aren't canceled or delayed still risk being on board with troublesome plane mates. Airlines have reported more than 3,200 incidents of unruly passengers since Jan. 1. Most involve people refusing to wear masks, as required by the federal government. Some of those passengers face large fines.

Andrew Thomas, a frequent flyer who teaches international business at the University of Akron and has tracked air rage for more than 20 years, believes conditions are ripe for even more incidents on planes this summer because travelers are more stressed than ever.

“The problem was there before COVID, and now you are putting more people in the sky and you exacerbate this with the masks,” Thomas said. “Service levels are atrocious. Planes are packed, they are not feeding you, it’s hard to get food in an airport. The only thing that’s easy to get is alcohol, which is not a good thing.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 819597

Reported Deaths: 15406
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1147901924
Mobile725791338
Madison52306697
Shelby37597350
Baldwin37245552
Tuscaloosa35101612
Montgomery34106740
Lee23526246
Calhoun22225488
Morgan20941378
Etowah19825500
Marshall18361304
Houston17384412
St. Clair16054339
Cullman15443293
Limestone15343199
Elmore15241286
Lauderdale14302295
Talladega13836283
DeKalb12649261
Walker11202370
Blount10192176
Autauga10043148
Jackson9871184
Coffee9210191
Dale8897185
Colbert8860201
Tallapoosa7084198
Escambia6772134
Covington6712183
Chilton6641162
Russell636659
Franklin5959105
Chambers5607142
Marion5005127
Dallas4973200
Pike4795106
Clarke475584
Geneva4571127
Winston4516103
Lawrence4321117
Bibb425186
Barbour357776
Marengo338090
Monroe331464
Randolph329764
Butler326396
Pickens316284
Henry312666
Hale311388
Cherokee302860
Fayette292880
Washington251551
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245275
Clay243368
Macon234663
Lamar224147
Conecuh186153
Coosa180240
Lowndes175164
Wilcox168839
Bullock151644
Perry138840
Sumter133038
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
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Clear cool and dry to begin your weekend, but both afternoons should be a little bit above what we expect for this time of year temperature wise. Rain chances begin to return late Sunday night, with at least two chances for storms over the next week, summer could be strong.
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