Airlines to Blame For Increased Flight Cancellations During Pandemic

According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday, airlines were responsible for most of the flight cancellations that occurred during the pandemic recovery period. The report also highlighted that airlines took longer to recover from disruptions, such as storms. The GAO examined flight data from January 2018 to April 2022 to understand the reasons behind the increase in flight cancellations and delays.

The GAO report found that weather was the primary cause of cancellations before the pandemic. However, the percentage of airline-caused cancellations began increasing in early 2021. From October to December 2021, airlines caused 60% or more of cancellations, which is higher than at any time in 2018 or 2019. Much of the increase in airline-caused cancellations occurred at budget airlines, but the largest carriers also made more unforced errors, according to government data.

The report also noted that airlines are taking longer to recover from disruptions such as storms. Surges in cancellations in late 2021 and early 2022 lasted longer than they did before the pandemic. The report highlights that airlines are understaffed and have struggled to replace thousands of workers who left during the pandemic. The airlines took $54 billion in taxpayer money to keep employees on the job through the pandemic, but they reduced workers anyway by paying them incentives to quit.

The GAO report was requested by Republican leaders of the House Transportation Committee. The report shows that many of the issues that led to the increase in cancellations were within the airlines’ control, such as maintenance issues or lack of a crew. Airlines have clashed with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg over blame for high rates of canceled and delayed flights in the past two years. Airlines argue that the government is at fault for not having enough air traffic controllers, while Buttigieg has blamed the carriers.

A spokeswoman for trade group Airlines for America said the majority of cancellations this year have been caused by severe weather and air traffic control outages. The spokeswoman also said, “Carriers have taken responsibility for challenges within their control and continue working diligently to improve operational reliability as demand for air travel rapidly returns. This includes launching aggressive, successful hiring campaigns for positions across the industry and reducing schedules in response to the FAA’s staffing shortages.”

The GAO report found that several airlines agreed to reduce schedules in New York this summer at the request of the FAA, which has a severe shortage of controllers at a key facility on Long Island. In 2019, Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines had the highest percentages of their own cancellations being caused by an airline-controlled issue. In late 2021, they were joined by low-fare carriers Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Frontier, each of whom were responsible for 60% or more of their own total cancellations, according to GAO. The percentage of cancellations caused by the airline also increased at Southwest, Delta, American and United.

The GAO said the Transportation Department has increased its oversight of airline-scheduling practices. The Transportation and Justice departments are investigating whether Southwest scheduled more flights than it could handle before last December’s meltdown. The Southwest debacle has led to calls to strengthen passenger-compensation rules.

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