Airlines’ chaotic summer is over. Here’s how it went

Travelers make their way through Orlando International Airport on New Year’s weekend, despite thousands of flight cancellations and delays across United States.

Paul Hennessy | Lightrocket | Getty Images

It was a pricey and chaotic summer for air travel.

A bigger share of flights were delayed or canceled during the main late spring and summer travel season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, compared with the same period of pre-pandemic 2019. Fares surged along with fuel prices and as millions of consumers booked trips after two years of forgoing flights. Domestic round trips averaged $342 between May and September, nearly 11% more than the same period in 2019, according to fare-tracker Hopper.

Labor shortages made it even harder for airlines to recover from routine events. Overambitious carriers trimmed their packed schedules to give their operations more breathing room. Overwhelmed European hubs capped passenger numbers. Even airline employee travel perks were scaled back.

Government agencies and airlines sparred over who was to blame. And on Sept. 1, the Department of Transportation published a dashboard that spells out what customers are owed when airlines delay or cancel their flights.

Fares are finally starting to decline along with temperatures, but vacation travel demand is still strong, executives said this week.

“We’re seeing a really strong September,” Patrick Quayle, United Airlines’ senior vice president of global network planning and alliances, said at a Cowen industry conference this week. “It does not appear that summer has come to an end. It’s that strong.”

As airlines prepare for the fall — and busy year-end holidays — here’s how they handled the heat this summer:

Vacationing like it’s 2019

Passenger numbers this summer surged compared with the past two years. During Labor Day weekend, the Transportation Security Administration screened about 8.76 million people, marking the first holiday weekend since the Covid pandemic began that was busier than one in 2019.

Disruptions rise

Airport delays varied around the country but some of the biggest hubs had greater shares of late-arriving flights, often driven by spring and summer storms.

Complaints soar

Traveler complaints to the Transportation Department soared, along with flight disruptions.

Fares cool

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