Flying is a Miserable Experience Right Now – Cranky Flier

We are just about a month into the summer, and so it’s time to do a little temperature check. How are things going? The answer is… not well. Yes, there are delays and cancellations during any summer, and there’s plenty of labor vs management mudslinging as well. But the numbers themselves show that things are much worse than even a normally-frustrating summer.

I went into masFlight/Anuvu data to look at performance for the biggest US airlines from June 1 – June 27. This includes the Big 4 (American, Delta, Southwest, United), the ULCCs (Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit), and two Tweeners (Alaska and JetBlue) plus their regional operations. So, how do things look?

June 1-27, 2022 Completion Factor by Marketing Airline

It looks like all those schedule cuts at Alaska this spring have done wonders for the airline. It and Frontier are the only two operating more than 99 percent of their flights. Wait… Frontier? Good for them.

The problems really arise when you get down to the big guys. None of those bottom five are performing well, though United is the best of the worst, so congrats to them. American – the worst of the worst – did even worse with mainline than it did with regionals, I should note. But Delta, oooh boy, Delta has fallen faster than anyone. This is very bad.

I’ve tried to think of the best way to put this into context, so let me put it this way. Across these 9 airlines, 3.1% of flights have been canceled from June 1 – 27. If we look at June 2019, the rate was 2.02%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, so let’s make it more tangible.

These nine airlines canceled 18,508 flights in the first 27 days of June. If they had “only” canceled 2.02% of flights as they did in June 2019, then 13,120 flights would have been canceled. In other words, the airlines have canceled more than 40 percent more flights this June simply because they couldn’t run an operation as well as they did in June 2019. And “well” was already a misnomer back then.

Not good enough? Ok. Assume each canceled flight averaged 100 people on board, probably a conservative number. That means that for the first three weeks of June, more than half a million more people were on canceled flights this year than if they had performed at 2019 levels.

Yes, it all sounds bad, but not everyone is failing in this regard. Spirit and Alaska saw minor improvements in their completion factor while Southwest climbed from 98.0 to 98.8 percent. But the big winner… again it’s Frontier with a jump from 97.5 to 99.0 percent. Good on them.

But here is where the animal-tail party ends. Flight cancellations are just one component. A poor on-time record is also problematic since it can often result in missed connections and more problems down the line. So how did that go?

June 1-26, 2022 Arrivals Within 14 Minutes of Schedule by Marketing Airline

Funny how that works, isn’t it? Frontier and Southwest may not have canceled much, but they sure have delayed a lot, nearly a third of their flights. That is often the tradeoff in these types of situations.

Spirit and Alaska, however… you both deserve a standing ovation for being the most reliable operators this June. It’s a low bar, to be sure, but compared to the rest these numbers are good.

The question is… what the hell is going on to make this such a miserable experience for so many people? And the answer is… it’s all going bad.

I don’t need to rehash everything on the airline side, because it’s been beaten to death already. Just suffice it to say that the airlines depleted their employee ranks and are struggling to refill them. At the same time, they retired fleets that led to big pilot shuffling and many training events. This has led to repeated schedule changes that, in many cases, still have not been enough. It’s hard to keep up.

At the same time, there is a crushingly high demand for travel this summer, so the airlines are pushing themselves as hard as they can to fly as much as possible even with depleted ranks. There is not as much margin as they’d like, so things can get ugly.

But it’s not just the airlines having problems. We’ve had clients take delays due to catering not being done, or ground crews not being available to bring an airplane in, or fueling delays… you name it. And let’s not forget the FAA which mind-bogglingly took the airlines to task last week on the very same day it put out flow control due to having its own staffing issues in Jacksonville Center.

It’s really just one thing after another, some related, some not. We have things like chronic understaffing in Europe at security checkpoints, which has forced airlines to make big changes. And then we have things as stupid as closing the air traffic control tower in Austin last week to do a deep clean due to COVID. (Apparently the news that COVID does not transmit easily on surfaces has not reached the FAA.)

You take this and add to it the high levels of demand and you have a lot of people stuck with few options available to them. So what do they do? They call the airlines and get absolutely nowhere due to understaffed and overtaxed call centers.

This is something we’ve seen repeated over and over again at Cranky Concierge. Last week, I called our Delta sales support desk – which is some special desk that is supposed to have shorter wait times – and I did the callback feature. Eventually I figured out a solution to my problem and forgot about it. I had completely forgotten by the time I got a call back a few hours later. At other times, the sales support line just say they’re too busy and we should call back later. Another client called American and didn’t get a callback until the following day. I spent Friday afternoon on perma-hold with Lufthansa’s so-called “Key Accounts” desk before getting an answer after 3 hours. I shudder to think what the regular line wait was.

This is being repeated over and over again, and travelers are getting more and more frustrated, as they should be. It takes a lot to push me to the edge, but seeing just how miserable everything has been this month has taken its toll… and I’m not the one flying.

I’d love to say I have a list of easy solutions, but I don’t. The only real near term solution is to cut back flights, but that’s bad too. United is doing that with a 50 daily flight cut in Newark since the airport is approaching gridlock with more than 10 percent of flights canceled this month so far. But that leaves thousands of travelers every day who need to now be rebooked. Meanwhile, Delta keeps pushing ahead with its schedule as is, but it is canceling like crazy, more than 7% of mainline departures yesterday alone.

The airlines, their contractors, and the feds did not do enough to ensure this summer would run well, and now the traveling public is forced to live with that in the near term. They should all be apologizing for getting us into this mess.

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