Flight cancellations persisted after January COVID-19 spike, data show

Airlines grappled with issues into February, federal report says.
Travelers are seen at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta on Friday, April 8, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Travelers are seen at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Flight cancellations continue to persist for U.S. airlines since severe disruptions caused by the January COVID-19 surge and even as carriers staff up ahead of what’s expected to be a busy summer travel season, according to the latest federal data on air travel.

Airlines canceled 4.5% of their domestic flights in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, after canceling 6.3% of their flights in January, during the height of the omicron variant.

That’s significantly more cancellations than in February 2020 before the pandemic, when airlines canceled just 1% of their flights. Aside from cancellations, airlines overall have maintained on-time arrival rates of about 75% or higher in the first two months of the year.

The past two years have been among the most challenging ever for the travel industry. Airlines slashed flights and jobs and limped along amid successive waves of COVID-19.

Carriers are hopeful 2022 will see a robust rebound thanks to stronger consumer and business travel demand, but there no doubt will be turbulence.

This February’s cancellation figures were closer to a spike in cancellations to 5.8% in February 2021. At that time, travel was already depressed because of the pandemic and winter storms led to thousands of cancellations.

Delta Air Lines had a 2.4% cancellation rate in February 2022, on par with a year earlier and better than many of its competitors. But that’s still 12 times higher than the Atlanta-based airline’s 0.2% cancellation rate in February 2020 before the pandemic.

And cancellations continue to plague some airlines today. JetBlue Airways announced cuts to its summer flight schedule by 10% as it continues to deal with staffing shortages.

JetBlue said in a press release that airlines have “faced ongoing challenges this year from the Omicron wave, staffing ramp up, attrition, weather events, and air traffic control delays.” JetBlue also said reducing its schedule “will add more buffer room throughout the day to make up for operational disruptions and put less stress on its crew resources.”

The airline said it is also working to “proactively cancel flights on days when bad weather is forecasted or if it anticipates air traffic control delays due to congestion or air traffic control center staffing shortages.”

Those moves are aimed at reducing the risk of last-minute flight cancellations, which can be more disruptive to passengers.

COVID-19 outbreaks have driven spikes in flight cancellations throughout the pandemic.

But the more recent flight troubles have been marked by different factors, such as a strong rebound in air travel and continued struggles to hire enough workers to handle the demand.

Delta pilots have been picketing, arguing staffing problems have caused pilots to work longer hours and fatiguing schedules. Delta says it has been hiring pilots and other workers as it resumes more flying.

The pilot hiring challenges are even more challenging for regional carriers that operate flights for Delta Connection and other major airlines’ regional operations.

Delta decreased regional flights 20-25% in the first part of the year, while ramping up its own workforce to handle millions of passengers returning to the skies.

CEO Ed Bastian said Delta has hired nearly 15,000 people since the start of 2021 and expects to hire roughly 1,000 more to prepare for the summer rush.

“We feel good about our staffing and our ability to meet demand as we continue to restore the airline,” Bastian said in mid-April.

Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, also struggled with staffing problems that became acute early this year. The airline has reduced its flight schedule for the summer “to provide additional buffer” in light of staffing challenges. CEO Bob Jordan said one of his top priorities for 2022 is “getting properly staffed and returning to historic operational reliability.”

“While it has been an incredibly challenging period, we are greatly encouraged by the progress we are making,” he said in a written statement.