Fourth of July travelers, brace yourselves for a rough weekend — especially if you’ll be spending any time at the airport.
Demand for airline travel is roaring back. Nearly 13 million people are expected to fly this weekend, according to data from travel app Hopper, and more than 2.4 million people passed through TSA checkpoints on Thursday alone.
Unfortunately, airlines are struggling to keep up with the crush of passengers. According to flight tracker FlightAware, more than 7,000 flights were canceled by U.S. carriers in the last week alone. A whopping 53,400 were delayed. Things were better — if only slightly — before the pandemic. In the week leading up the holiday weekend in 2019, roughly 3,400 flights were canceled and 43,500 were delayed.
Of course, flight disruptions aren’t the only headache travelers have to deal with this year. The cost of airline tickets has soared 38% on an annual basis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far higher than the rate of overall inflation.
Airlines are already planning for the worst this weekend. Citing the “operational challenges” it expects this holiday weekend, Delta is taking the unprecedented step of letting customers change their flights for free between July 1 and July 4 in an attempt to cut down on flight disruptions. The airline had already trimmed 100 daily flights from its schedule this summer to “relieve pressure” on its operations, Reuters reported.
Other carriers including JetBlue and Southwest have also cut back on summer flights, but many industry experts anticipate more cancellations and delays ahead.
Why are there so many flight cancellations and delays?
One of the biggest factors causing disruptions across the airline industry is staffing shortages — especially pilots and flight crews. Thousands of pilots took early retirement buyouts when travel demand collapsed during the early days of the pandemic, Captain Casey Murray, President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, recently told NPR. Tens of thousands more flight attendants and other airline staff were laid off in 2020. Even though Americans are traveling again, hiring hasn’t caught up.
And when airlines don’t have enough staff, it’s much more difficult for them to recover from any disruptions from bad weather or other unexpected issues.
Lawmakers are pushing for stricter regulations to force airlines to be more accountable for problems on scheduled flights. Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on the Department of Transportation to introduce new fines for airlines and expand refund requirements to cut down on delays and cancellations.
"Thousands of flight disruptions have left passengers and crew members stranded at crowded airports from one end of the country to the other forcing them to miss weddings, funerals, and business meetings and ruining family vacations that have been planned for months in advance," Sanders wrote in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
How to get a refund for a canceled flight
If your flight is canceled, you’re entitled to a refund under Department of Transportation regulations — even if you've purchased nonrefundable airline tickets. That rule also applies in the case of a significant delay or if the airline makes a significant change to your flight and you choose not to travel.
The DOT says it defines a "significant delay" on a case-by-case basis, adding that your eligibility for a refund will depend on the length of time you're delayed, the length of your flight and other circumstances. American Airlines, to give one example, says it will issue a refund after a delay of more than four hours.
But be prepared for hassles, and be patient. The refund process isn’t always easy, and it could take a long time to get your money back. Instead of automatically refunding you for the unused portion of your ticket, airlines will often rebook you or convert your ticket to a credit for future travel. Depending on your travel schedule and flexibility, one of those could be the better option than a simple refund.
If you know you’d like a refund instead of a credit or new ticket, you’ll need to submit a request to the airline, either through an online form or by speaking with an agent on the phone. If you booked your ticket with a travel agent or online agency like Expedia or Orbitz, you’ll need to work with that third party to get your refund.