Memorial Day Weekend Looms: How Airlines Are Prepping, How Travelers Can Defend Against Flight Disruptions

Your bags are packed, tickets are in hand and you’re ready to go. But will disruption-plagued airlines in South Florida be able to avoid the spate of delays and cancellations that have dogged customers all year?

Analysts and critics aren’t so sure.

“I don’t think they are able to handle the crowds,” said Clint Henderson, managing editor of The Points Guy, a consumer advice guide for airline travelers. “What we’re seeing is a drumbeat of delays and cancellations. It’s already busy out there and it’s expected to get busier in the summer. The airlines, airports, hotels and car rental companies are not staffed for that demand. I do think you’re going to see more meltdowns.”

Labor unions representing airline workers assert the nation’s carriers are still falling short of seamlessly serving a public eager to return to the skies after being cooped up by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Florida, the problem has been particularly acute during major holiday weekends, as airlines have canceled or delayed thousands of flights due to tumultuous weather.

Last Wednesday, the head of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 64,000 cockpit crew members in the US and Canada, ripped the airlines for accepting billions in federal government aid to keep their networks aloft, only to fall short when consumer demand rebounded from the pandemic.

“Over the last three years, the US government, American taxpayers, airline labor, and company managements have risen to the challenge of the pandemic,” Joe Depete, ALPA president, told a meeting of the union’s executive board in Washington. “But … after securing federal aid on a scale no other industry received, some airlines’ failure to plan for recovery threatens to cost our industry the comeback.”

Industry observers say the problems in Florida go beyond staffing and heavy consumer demand. Air traffic control shortages and more frequent storms in the region have exacerbated the issue. The Federal Aviation Administration also pointed to a new source of disruptions: an increase in commercial space launches from Cape Canaveral on Florida’s East Coast.

The airlines adjust

In advance of the Memorial Day weekend, the South Florida Sun Sentinel asked several major carriers serving the tri-county area — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines — to project how prepared they are to help passengers cope with potential disruptions.

Generally speaking, airlines such as Southwest and Spirit have dialed back on the number of flights they intend to offer as they continue the process of replenishing their rosters of pilots, flight attendants and other workers who were furloughed or ushered into early retirements during the pandemic.

American has said it is hiring more than 600 home-based employees in the South Florida area to handle reservations. The airline has 200 in training, with a goal to hire more than 400 in the next couple of months, pushing the total to nearly 800. More than 1,500 were hired at Miami last year.

As for the upcoming weekend traffic, an American spokeswoman from Miami said the airline expects to average more than 5,700 departures system-wide between May 26 and 30.

“For comparison, we operated 5,179 flights on Memorial Day (Monday of the holiday weekend) last year, and 6,381 in 2019,” said the spokeswoman, Laura Masivdal.

In an email, Southwest said that in a bid to buttress reliability during the spring and summer, the airline increased its system headcount by approximately 3,300 in first quarter of this year after factoring in previous employee departures. The airline said it plans to hire approximately 10,000 employees by 2022.

“Southwest also previously adjusted its published flight schedules for June through August 2022 to provide additional buffer to the operation this summer,” said the airline, which is one of the predominant carriers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The other three carriers did not respond before the close of business Friday.

Brainstorming with the FAA

Earlier this month, representatives of several carriers, including South Florida-based Spirit, met for two days with the Federal Aviation Administration to discuss the cancellation and disruption problems in Florida.

After it concluded, the FAA said it would “immediately” increase staff at its pivotal Jacksonville air traffic control center to cope with growing numbers of flights to and from Florida.

“The agency will … work with stakeholders to develop a playbook to keep aircraft moving safely when weather, space launches or other events constrain capacity,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA will increase the ability for airlines to keep aircraft moving during these events by using alternate routes and altitudes when possible.”

The agency stopped short of capping flights in and out of Florida, and more meetings are planned with the airlines as the summer unfolds, the FAA said.

The FAA did not respond when asked this week if they’d made those staffing changes.

Government figures show that most of Florida’s major airports have rebounded from steep service reductions caused by COVID-19, with flights increasing by more than 100% at Miami, West Palm Beach and Tampa. Fort Lauderdale is reportedly at 90%.

Southwest said it “appreciates the FAA’s focus on the air traffic challenges affecting Florida airspace and the ongoing support of airlines working to serve air travelers in the region.”

But that may be of little solace for stranded airline passengers who are again prevented from reaching their destinations on time.

Henderson of The Points Guy believes the airlines’ performance this coming Memorial Day will be a good indicator of what’s to come for the summer.

“We’ll get a good sense as to how the airlines are handling the crowds,” he said. “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be an interesting summer.”

In a pinch, what’s a flier to do?

If passengers are faced with a long delay or cancellation, Henderson and his colleagues at The Points Guy recommend that you respond quickly, research your options and make a decision for alternate travel.

some ideas:

  • In advance, learn what flights are available aboard other airlines along the route you intend to travel. “You should know before you go what carriers are operating on that route,” Henderson said. You can track and check the status of flights through the online FlightAware or Flight Radar 24 tracking sites, which would give you a leg up on other passengers.
  • On your phone, download the airlines’ apps for a quick reference tool. If a flight gets canceled, you may be able to rebook yourself on the app.
  • Check with your airline’s gate agent for revised flight times. Don’t rely solely on electronic boards in the terminal, as they’re not always up to date.
  • If your flight gets canceled you can go to the re-ticketing line. While doing that, go on the app to see if they have a rebooking option and message the airline about your situation on Twitter.
  • Airport lounges: If you’re a member of an airline club with access to a lounge operated by your airline, pay it a visit. There will likely be an airline agent there to help with re-bookings and updated alternate flight information.
  • Canceled with no flight options? Check for airport hotels if you’re not looking to return home right away. Better to wake up rested and refreshed to take on the next day. Whether an airline pays for the overnight depends on a variety of situations. If the airline is a major carrier and the delay or cancellation is their fault, such a crew shortage, the carrier will foot the bill. But Henderson says if the delay is caused by an act of God, such as the weather, “it’s hard to say in black and white that yes, you will get a refund or that insurance will cover you,” Henderson said. If you’re on a discount carrier or regional airline, or if you book the lowest fare class ticket in economy, the airline won’t pay.
  • Reimbursements: Certain credit cards offered by Chase and American Express (which charge significant annual fees) do have trip delay coverage. That means the travel insurance will pay for the cost of hotel lodging, ground transportation and meals. You’ll likely have to pay for additional expenses upfront, but can get a reimbursement later.
  • Refunds: Don’t settle for a voucher from an airline for future travel. Under federal rules, you are entitled to cash.

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