Why so many flights were canceled or delayed this weekend

JThousands of travelers were stranded at airports over the weekend as thunderstorms in Florida curtailed operations and technology issues left one of the biggest airlines scrambling to recover during the rush spring break. More than 10,000 US flights have been canceled or delayed, according to flight tracker FlightAware, with another 5,085 delayed and 779 canceled as of Monday.

“Absolute madness,” one person wrote on Twitter to Southwest Airlines. “Very disappointed,” another wrote to JetBlue Airways. Some passengers said they waited hours with airlines, while others waited in line to speak to an agent to have their canceled flights rescheduled. Southwest alone canceled 920 flights between Saturday and Sunday, with 43% of its scheduled Saturday flights delayed. On Sunday, JetBlue canceled 25% of its flights. Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Spirit and American Airlines also reported similar delays and cancellations.

Here’s everything that went wrong.

Severe weather

Heavy rain and devastating winds in central Florida on Saturday were the main cause of air travel disruptions over the weekend. At one point in the afternoon, forecasters were tracking a tornado threat between Jacksonville and Gainesville, prompting air traffic controllers to institute a “restricted flow zone” over that part of Florida.

The Federal Aviation Administration had to briefly halt flights at several airports in the state due to extreme weather conditions, and other flights had to be diverted away from the storms. The weekend’s problems were exacerbated by the peak spring break season, with nearly 2.3 million travelers screened at airports on Friday.

“Over the past few days, extreme weather conditions in the Southeast and multiple air traffic control delay programs have created significant impacts on the industry,” JetBlue said in a statement. The airline said the cancellations were necessary to help “reset our operations and get our crews and planes back in place safely”.

Technology issues

In addition to poor weather in Florida, the nation’s largest national carrier, Southwest, said it also faced “intermittent technology issues” early Saturday morning that impacted its schedules.

The airline briefly halted departures as part of overnight maintenance before the storm to perform checks on a main system that it reset. Maintenance was scheduled, though Southwest didn’t say how or why it became an issue that caused delays.

However, those technological issues only impacted some of the airline’s first flights on Saturday, hours before the storm hit.

Staff shortages

Alaska Airlines, a frequent flyer in the Pacific Northwest, appeared to face a separate issue over the weekend that led to even more flight cancellations: a staff shortage and ongoing contract negotiations with its pilots.

The airline canceled nearly 300 flights between Friday and Sunday, affecting more than 37,000 customers, as furloughed pilots picketed several US cities due to stalled negotiations. The cancellations began the same day the union representing Alaska Airlines pilots organized outside the carrier’s terminals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Anchorage.

Pilots there have been without a new contract for three years and continue to negotiate more flexible hours and increased job security and wages alongside the Air Line Pilots Association. But the union says its pickets are not responsible for Alaska Airlines’ cancellations since pilots didn’t organize until Friday and the airline canceled 161 of its flights on Saturday and Sunday when pilots weren’t protesting. Rather, he says pilot attrition is the cause. “Alaska Airlines has failed to properly plan for increased travel demand and take the necessary steps to ensure it attracts and retains pilots,” the pilots’ union said in a statement. press Friday.

Consulting firm Oliver Wyman predicts there will be a pilot shortage that will exceed 12,000 by 2023 due to an aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements. A series of now-deleted viral TikToks from late February chronicling how a JetBlue flight cancellation left people stranded for at least 48 hours in Las Vegas sparked fears pilots went on strike, but there was no such reports.

“Alongside other carriers, we continue to be impacted by a nationwide pilot shortage and the training program required to onboard new pilots,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement Saturday. Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in an email to pilots Friday that the carrier will offer 150% of their salary to take additional flights.

Brett Snyder, author of the airline industry site Cranky Flier, says airports haven’t been this busy since the start of the pandemic two years ago, when airlines saw record numbers of passengers and heavy financial losses. But with 65% of the nation now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, combined with pent-up demand amid the busy spring break season, airlines are scrambling to rebuild their networks and workforces, as some 400,000 employees airlines have been laid off or furloughed. the last two years. “That means they can have less slack than they’d like, and something like the bad weather Florida had this weekend can create havoc more easily,” says Snyder.

What to do if your flight is canceled

With 304 US flights already canceled Tuesday and another 29 Wednesday at press time, travelers should be prepared for more unexpected flight changes occurring throughout this week. The first thing travelers should do when their flight is cancelled, experts say, is to research their ticket information and review the airline-specific policy.

Airlines are legally required to provide a full refund to customers if a flight is significantly delayed and the passenger chooses not to travel, but ultimately it is up to the airline to determine what constitutes a significant delay. . Passengers who choose to take the next available flight are not entitled to compensation under federal law, although some airlines may offer refunds if the delay is their fault or caused by mechanical issues. Southwest, however, has not publicly offered refunds for flights delayed by its weekend tech issues.

“If you’re at the airport, stand in line to speak to an agent,” says Snyder. Passengers will usually be offered a few options, such as a seat on the next available flight, their refund, or travel credits that expire in a year. Passengers can also call their airline directly, but given the long wait times and potential challenges of dialing international phone numbers, Snyder also recommends Tweeting the airline. Some airlines will also post social media updates with a list of alternative options available.

But for travelers caught in the wrath of the Florida weekend storm, experts note that airlines aren’t obligated to arrange accommodations, so travelers will have to fend for themselves when it comes to accommodations. meals and overnight accommodation.

For travelers who booked their flights through an online travel agency, such as Expedia or Orbitz, the process may be a little more difficult. Customers are encouraged to contact the agency directly to resolve any issues, and the agency may then request a refund from the airline on behalf of the traveler.

So what does it mean that the travel season is speeding up?

Although some airlines are resuming near-normal operations, the recent spate of flight disruptions is not over yet. As of Tuesday, 114 flights on Spirit Airlines remain canceled, and the delays have created a massive backlog for airlines with effects reaching airports across the country, from Boston to Las Vegas to Dallas.

Experts warn that staffing shortages at Alaska Airlines and across the industry are most likely an ongoing issue that could lead to continued delays and cancellations in the months ahead. But extreme weather events are less predictable. “A flight cancellation is always a possibility for travelers at any time,” Snyder says. “Airlines can never predict the weather well enough to schedule everything perfectly, so things can go off the rails.”

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com.

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