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Record summer airline travel is starting, and so are the flight delays

Travelers walk with their luggage outside the international terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) ahead of the July 4th holiday travel period on June 25, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. 

Mario Tama | Getty Images

Summer air travel is expected to soar in the United States. The Transportation Security Administration screened a high of 2.99 million individuals on Sunday, June 23 — exceeding a record set just weeks earlier on May 24 — and the TSA is forecasting a record-setting July 4 holiday period. TSA expects to screen more than 32 million travelers in all between Friday, June 28, and Monday, July 8, a 5.4% year-over-year increase in travel for the holiday.

The record-breaking air traveler numbers come amid airline challenges, from supply chain delays to intense regulation, the Boeing safety crises limiting new planes coming to market, air traffic controller “fatigue,” extreme weather delays, and rising costs which have hit the carriers’ bottom line and compressed margins.

Airports weren’t wholly ready for the initial summer rush. Over 6,000 flights were delayed by the evening of Friday, May 24, on the East Coast alone. While there may be enough flights to meet demand, the record travel still pose challenges to airports, airlines, and travelers. For now, the airlines are expressing confidence.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” this week that its performance levels are excelling, with the “best first quarter reliability [Delta has] ever seen.” (Delta has the best on-time record in the U.S.)

But there will also be the need for coordination.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom told “Squawk Box” the company is making sure to “run the most reliable airline possible,” but factors affecting on-time flights vary from weather to air traffic control issues.

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Air traffic, extreme weather

The Federal Aviation Administration has found a shortage of up to 3,000 needed air traffic controllers. Last summer, a record-breaking summer for airports, there were air traffic jams and near collisions amid challenges in flight coordination. Based on air traffic patterns and airport density, New York City and Florida are subject to the highest risk of backups.

The massive heat wave across the U.S. was a peek at the kind of extreme weather that can lead to travel issues. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects disruptive weather for the holiday week, with storms across the Midwest and East Coast, and continuing dangerous heat in the Southwest and interior Northeast.

Extreme temperatures cause technical failures that result in delays. High heat creates thin air, which hampers the plane’s thrust for takeoff and ascent. That means airplanes need more runway for takeoff or a lighter aircraft — by removing baggage or passengers. And it means that very high temperatures increase the risk of flight cancellations. The best bet to avoid this risk is to take early morning and late-night flights.

Good news to reduce travel anxiety

If travelers prepare and secure backup plans, they can make the best out of the busy summer season. And despite travel anxiety and a cascade of uncertain factors, travel expert and managing editor at The Points Guy, Clint Henderson, says airlines and airports are so far showing signs of being better prepared than past years.

Despite May issues and despite some airlines pulling back on overall hiring plans compared to past years, in part due to Boeing delays, Henderson said, “We have not seen the major meltdowns that we saw a couple of years ago. And I think part of the reason for that is the airlines and the airports, and everyone from Uber to rental car companies, you know, you name it, everyone staffed back up.”

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United Airlines has projected a 7% increase in flyers from the 2023 Independence Day week, and is adapting with new staff. American Airlines is slated for 10% more summer departures year over year.

Improvements in coordination for air traffic controllers are also taking place. “The federal government and local ATC towers have been working together better, and that includes the military. They’ve opened up military airspace to help accommodate the crowd, so we have seen snarls,” Henderson said. “There is still a shortage of air traffic controllers, but it hasn’t led to the worst outcomes that we were expecting when we were talking about the shortage of air traffic control workers even a year ago.”

That said, he warns that in severe weather, a shortage of air traffic control may still worsen delays for travelers.

Tips for Independence Day travel

With lower-than-expected prices, many more flyers this summer are infrequent flyers, who should start by signing up for airline apps which may offer them some introductory benefits, starting with miles and extending to free WiFi on some flights.

Henderson said the easiest ways to save hours of wait times include signing up for programs that offer passengers faster movement through security, including TSA PreCheck and Clear, as well as the no-application-required Mobile Passport Control app, which allows users to go through an expedited U.S. Customs lane.

He also recommended the “Flighty” tracker app, or similar flight tracker, to stay on top of options in the event flight status changes. Flyers need to also stay on top of the routes that the planes they plan to take are already traveling on, to catch issues at other airports which could ultimately cause a cascade of cancellations.

“If your flight gets canceled, you’re competing with all those people on that plane to get on the next available flight. So if you have a head start on those people, you’re going to be the winner,” Henderson said. When it comes to traveling during peak season, “Information is power,” he said.

Cheaper airfares may not be here to stay

Airfares are down, but many factors influence price, from the specific destination of a traveler, with wide variation in prices depending on route, to how far in advance tickets are purchased, midweek travel versus weekend dates, and what additional fees (e.g. baggage) may push up the total cost of travel significantly.

In addition, with issues lingering in the supply of new planes, from Boeing production being curtailed by the FAA to Airbus running into supply chain snafus, the recent dip in fares may not last too long. Henderson eventually expects price hikes from airlines related to increasing maintenance costs and reduced fleet capacity.

Labor costs and fuel costs per flight skyrocketed in the past year. With production delays, airlines pay billions to fly less fuel-efficient and more costly and aged jets. Technical issues are more common on older plans and increase delays as well.

On June 26, Southwest Airlines cut its second-quarter revenue forecast while citing booking concerns. The firm announced a decline in expected revenue per seat per mile, and fuel costs increasing up to 7.5% year over year.

But for now, even with rising costs, flight prices have yet to return to their summer 2023 peaks, and consumers are taking advantage. Henderson said many last-minute travel deals that airlines are offering this summer are still available. Even if the security lines are long, prices on many routes should not weigh travelers down. Hopefully, neither will delays and cancellations.

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