Congressional investigators said in a report Friday that the increase in flight cancellations as travel recovers from the pandemic is due mostly to factors airlines have taken control, including cancellations for maintenance issues or a lack of crew.
The GAO also said that airlines take longer to recover from disruptions such as storms. The GAO said the increases in cancellations in late 2021 and early 2022 lasted longer than they did before the pandemic.
Much of the increase in airline cancellations has occurred on low-cost carriers, but the largest airlines have also made more inadvertent errors, according to government data.
Airlines have clashed with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg over high rates of canceled and delayed flights in the past two years. The airlines argue that the government is at fault for not having enough air traffic controllers, while Buttigieg blamed the airlines.
the Government Accountability Office report Requested by Republican leaders on the House Transportation Committee. The Government Accountability Office said it examined flight data from January 2018 through April 2022 to understand why travelers experienced more delays and cancellations as travel began to recover from the pandemic.
The GAO said weather was the leading cause of cancellations in the two years prior to the pandemic, but the percentage of cancellations due to airlines began to increase in early 2021. From October through December 2021, airlines accounted for 60% or more of cancellations — even higher. at any time in 2018 or 2019.
At the time, airlines were short of staff. Airlines took $54 billion in taxpayer money to keep employees on the job during the pandemic, but cut workers anyway by paying incentives for them to quit.
As travel rebounds, airlines have struggled to replace thousands of departing workers. They now have more workers than they did in 2019 — and the cancellation rate this year is lower than the same period in 2019, according to data from tracking service FlightAware.
The majority of cancellations this year have been due to inclement weather and outages of air traffic control — about 1,300 flights were canceled in one day due to an outage in the FAA’s safety warning system, said a spokeswoman for the Air America commercial group.
“Airlines have taken responsibility for the challenges within their control and continue to work hard to improve operational reliability as demand for air travel returns quickly,” said spokeswoman Hannah Walden. “This includes launching aggressive and successful recruitment campaigns for positions across the industry and reducing schedules in response to FAA staffing shortages.”
Several airlines agreed to reduce schedules in New York this summer at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is experiencing an acute shortage of controllers at a major facility on Long Island.
In 2019, Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines had their highest percentage of cancellations due to an airline-controlled issue—more than half of the cancellations per airline. In late 2021, they were joined by low-cost carriers Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Frontier, each responsible for 60% or more of their total cancellations, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The percentage of cancellations caused by the airline has also gone up at Southwest, Delta, American and United. The numbers did not include the late December cancellations at Southwest that followed the collapse of the company’s crew rescheduling system.
The Government Accountability Office said the Department of Transportation has increased its oversight of airlines’ scheduling practices. The Departments of Transportation and Justice are investigating Whether Southwest scheduled more flights than it could handle before crashing last December remains to be seen.
The Southwest disaster has led to calls to strengthen passenger compensation rules.
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