Airlines canceled more than 1,500 US flights on Thursday, one of the worst days for travel as the peak of the summer holiday season heats up.
At LaGuardia Airport in New York, more than a third of all flights were canceled and more than a quarter of flights were launched at nearby Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
The cancellations came less than three weeks after airlines kicked off the summer travel season by canceling about 2,800 flights in a five-day period around the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
And they came as airline CEOs held a virtual meeting with Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg — a sign of the Biden administration’s concern at the prospect of congested airports and disaffected travelers this summer.
“I let you know that this is a time that we really count on them to reliably deliver to the traveling public,” Buttigieg told NBC News.
During the meeting, which took place via video conference, Buttigieg asked CEOs to outline the steps they are taking to operate smoothly over the July 4th holiday and the rest of the summer, according to a person familiar with the call but not authorized. to discuss it publicly. .
Buttigieg also pressed airlines to examine whether they can handle the schedules they have posted and improve customer service, the person said.
The head of the airlines for America trade group, Nicholas Calio, said in a statement that industry officials appreciated the chance to speak with Buttigieg and “discuss our shared commitment to prioritizing the safety of all travelers.”
Airlines are struggling with a shortage of workers, especially pilots, which is hampering their ability to operate all planned flights. Delta, American and Southwest pilot unions said their airlines were too slow to replace pilots who retired or took leave during the start of the pandemic.
Two Senate Democrats said this month that the holiday weekend’s performance “raises questions about airline decision-making.” Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts said delays and cancellations “are occurring so frequently that they are becoming an almost expected part of travel.”
Airlines blame bad weather and the Federal Aviation Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation that manages the country’s airspace. In a letter to senators, Calio pointed to a long list of FAA delays and personnel issues over the holiday weekend.
Airlines battled with the FAA this spring over delays in Florida, where air travel has recovered more quickly than in many other parts of the country. After meeting with airline representatives in May, the FAA agreed to increase staff at an air traffic control center near Jacksonville and make other changes.
Concern about flight problems arises as the number of air travelers in the US exceeds 2.2 million a day. That’s still about 300,000 fewer a day than they were in mid-June 2019, but the crowds will grow in the coming weeks and will almost certainly break the pandemic-era record set on the Sunday after last year’s Thanksgiving.
Bottlenecks can appear at inbound airports where travelers enter the United States. Last weekend, the Biden administration lifted a 16-month requirement that people test negative for COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the US. flights.
Another threat: The FAA is urging airlines to quickly update equipment that may be vulnerable to radio interference from the new wireless service. The agency’s interim administrator, Billy Nolen, told airlines on Wednesday that Verizon and AT&T plan to turn on hundreds of 5G C-band transmitters near airports on July 5.
Dreadful predictions of fallout from mobile companies’ initial C-band service failed to materialize earlier this year. Still, Nolen said the FAA can’t promise there won’t be problems with some planes. He said industry officials had found a way to retrofit many planes with problematic equipment by the end of the year and others in 2023.
Shares of the six largest US airlines tumbled between 6% and 9% on Thursday as jitters over the economy sent the broader market tumbling.