Airlines Struggle to Cope as Travel Picks Up and Storms Force Delays

Summer getaways are testing the limits of the country’s air travel system as airlines and airports try to restore operations that were decimated by the pandemic.

Nearly 10,000 flights were delayed in the United States on Sunday, as travel surged and airlines contended with bad weather and other disruptions.

Among the nation’s largest airlines, Southwest Airlines had the most delays, with 30 percent of flights running late, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. At American Airlines, 25 percent of flights were delayed, compared with 23 percent for United Airlines and 21 percent for Delta Air Lines.

The slowdowns came as travel reached new pandemic heights: The Transportation Security Administration screened 2.1 million people at its airport security checkpoints on Sunday, the most since early March 2020.

Several airlines, including Southwest, blamed the delays on bad weather. Thunderstorms affected operations at Delta’s hub airports in Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit and complicated efforts to get flight crews in place, a spokesman said. At American, the problems had been building since earlier in the month.

“The first few weeks of June have brought unprecedented weather to our largest hubs, heavily impacting our operation and causing delays, canceled flights and disruptions to crew member schedules and our customers’ plans,” American said in a statement.

Each of the nation’s major airlines faced significant delays on Sunday, but only American also had substantial cancellations, which affected about 6 percent of flights, according to FlightAware. Citing the bad weather, vendor labor shortages and the rapid rise in travel, American said it would cut back its schedule over the next few weeks to minimize last-minute disruptions.

“Our focus this summer — and always — is on delivering for our customers no matter the circumstance,” the airline said in a statement. “We never want to disappoint, and feel these schedule adjustments will help ensure we can take good care of our customers and team members and minimize surprises at the airport.”

All told, American cut about a thousand flights in July, representing more than 0.5 percent of its schedule that month, according to Cirium, a flight data provider. Most of the cuts are concentrated in the first half of the month, the airline said.

The situation seemed to improve on Monday, with only about 5 percent of flights delayed for Delta and United by early afternoon. Virtually no flights run by those airlines had been canceled. About 10 percent of American’s flights were delayed, while a slightly higher percentage were delayed at Southwest. About 5 percent of flights run by American and Southwest had been canceled.

Despite the complications, the rebound is welcome news across the industry, which has suffered devastating financial losses. Only one large airline, Southwest, has reported a quarterly profit since the pandemic began.

But the resurgence hasn’t come without difficulties. Reports of disruptive and sometimes violent passenger behavior are on the rise — so much so that a group of major airlines and unions asked the Justice Department on Monday to crack down on such conduct.

“These incidents pose a safety and security threat to our passengers and employees, and we respectfully request that the Department of Justice commit to the full and public prosecution of onboard acts of violence,” the group said in a letter to the attorney general, Merrick Garland.

The recovery is far from complete. T.S.A. screenings over the past week are down more than 25 percent compared with the same period in 2019, and corporate and international travel, two moneymakers for the airlines, have yet to pick up in any meaningful way.

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