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Airlines and F.A.A. Attempt to Head Off Summer Travel Meltdowns

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The variety of Americans who will fly this summer could eclipse the prepandemic high from 2019. That may be great news for airlines, however it could also cause a backlash against the industry if it fails to maintain up with demand and delays or cancels hundreds of flights.

The recovery from the pandemic has been punctuated by several major travel meltdowns, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers and angering lawmakers and regulators. In recent months, the Transportation Department has proposed requiring greater transparency around airline fees and requiring corporations to more fully compensate people whose flights are delayed or canceled.

A significant misstep could increase political pressure on lawmakers and regulators to take a harder line against airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, which directs air traffic and has also had notable failures lately.

“I don’t think they will afford to have a summer like they did last 12 months,” said William J. McGee, a senior fellow on the American Economic Liberties Project, a research and advocacy group that has criticized consolidation within the airline business. “This pattern they’d last 12 months of canceling flights on the last minute, in lots of cases resulting from crew shortages, that’s just unacceptable. They’re not going to have the option to do this again, I don’t think, not without some serious repercussions.”

Industry executives and F.A.A. officials say they’ve made changes after recent disruptions and meltdowns that ought to make air travel less chaotic and more nice this summer than lately.

Nearly every major airline and the air traffic control system has suffered a meltdown in some unspecified time in the future in the course of the recovery from the pandemic.

Early on, when coronavirus vaccinations were still being developed and tested and travel restrictions prevented people from traveling, carriers encouraged hundreds of employees to take buyouts or retire early despite the fact that the federal government had provided airlines with billions of dollars to pay worker salaries. When air travel quickly rebounded, airlines, like every other business, struggled to rent and train employees, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers.

Even when corporations got a hold on hiring, airlines remained particularly at risk of disruptions. Throughout the holidays leading into 2022, a resurgent coronavirus sickened huge numbers of crew members, compounding problems brought on by bad weather, and leading to hundreds of flight cancellations nationwide.

One other problem: The aviation system uses technology and ways of doing business that were developed years or a long time ago and are showing their age. Around Christmas last 12 months, Southwest Airlines struggled to beat bad storms due to insufficient equipment and inadequate crew scheduling software and practices, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers. Weeks later, the F.A.A. briefly stopped all flights from taking off nationwide after a contractor deleted a file in a dated pilot alerting system.

The industry has put in place changes to attenuate disruptions, including hiring more staff, reducing the variety of flights and adding more resilience to their networks. It appears to be helping: Through early May, weather has by far been the leading explanation for flight delays, and cancellations have been limited, compared with 2019.

To date this 12 months, air travel has returned to prepandemic levels, with greater than 2.1 million people passing through airport checkpoints day by day, as many as in the course of the same period in 2019, based on Transportation Security Administration data.

But traffic could soon exceed even those 2019 volumes. Memorial Day is the beginning of the summer travel season and is predicted to be the third-busiest in greater than twenty years, with 5.4 percent more people planning to fly than in the identical weekend before the pandemic, based on the AAA travel club.

Dozens of major airports are also expected to see double-digit growth in traffic this summer, from last summer, based on Airlines for America, an industry trade association. That list includes airports serving big cities, corresponding to Recent York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle and Denver. It also includes six hub airports for United Airlines, five for Delta Air Lines and 4 for American Airlines.

To maintain flights running easily this summer, the F.A.A. is relaxing rules at some busy airports.

Those rules require airlines to make use of or lose takeoff and landing slots that they’ve been assigned. But by easing that requirement from mid-May to mid-September, the F.A.A. hopes to encourage carriers to fly fewer, larger planes without fear of losing their spots. The policy applies to the three major airports serving Recent York City, in addition to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The F.A.A. said it relaxed the principles partly due to a staffing shortfall at an air traffic control center that serves the Recent York airports and employs only about half of its goal variety of air traffic controllers. Without the change, the F.A.A. said flight delays could increase by as much as 45 percent this summer compared with last summer. The issues could reverberate nationwide because many flights connect in Recent York.

The F.A.A. has also said that it has taken steps to higher accommodate flights around space launches, which have increased, particularly in Florida, but in addition in California and Texas. In early May, the agency announced that it had opened up 169 recent routes, primarily at high altitudes and along the East Coast, to ease congestion.

Some airlines say they’ve prepared for summer by planning to make use of greater planes, hiring more staff and more closely looking forward to early signs of disruptions.

On the F.A.A.’s request, several major airlines have agreed to fly less, but with greater planes, at some busy airports. United, for instance, said it planned to have 30 fewer day by day departures out of its Newark hub than in the summertime of 2019. But since it’s using larger planes, the airline said it might offer 5 percent more seats within the Recent York area.

“We very, very, very much need to fly a bigger schedule,” said Patrick Quayle, a senior vp for global network planning and alliances at United. “But what we care about most is running a reliable operation.”

Other airlines are also planning to make use of larger planes on certain routes, a practice that has accelerated lately and is often known as “upgauging.” Airlines have scheduled about 5 percent more flights inside america this summer compared with last summer, and there will probably be about 10 percent more seats available, based on Cirium, an aviation data provider. Compared with the summer of 2019, airlines this summer will fly 10 percent fewer flights yet offer 3 percent more seats.

The industry has also aggressively recruited and trained recent employees. As of March, passenger airlines employed the equivalent of nearly 487,000 full-time employees, probably the most since October 2001, based on an evaluation of federal data by Airlines for America, the industry group. Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, recently said that the airline had finished a hiring spree.

“The hiring rates that we’re at now are only normal hiring rates for normal attrition, not of the huge bulge that we would have liked to undergo to revive the business,” Mr. Bastian told Wall Street analysts on a conference call in April. “And so not only are we able to cut back the give attention to getting out and hiring people, we will take the those who have been doing the training and put them back within the business.”

Airlines have also tried to be smarter about spotting disruptions before they end in mass delays and cancellations. After its winter holiday debacle, Southwest said it might higher use real-time data to maintain tabs on the health of its network. American said it had also put into place a system called Heat, which might allow it to quickly delay and cancel flights in response to mounting problems while minimizing the number of consumers affected.

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