An estimated 12.8 million Americans will fly over Labor Day weekend.
Why it matters
While air travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels, many airlines are still plagued by significant delays and cancellations.
Despite ongoing flight disruptions and high ticket prices, an estimated 12.6 million Americans will be flying over the three-day Labor Day holiday weekend, according to travel site Hopper. American Airlines alone estimates 2.5 million customers will board 26,400 scheduled flights through Monday.
Many of those passengers will face delays and cancellations: On average, 23% of flights departing from US airports in August were delayed, an increase of nearly 30% compared to 2019. And cancellation rates last month were more than double their pre-pandemic rates, as airlines continue to grapple with staff shortages, picket lines, weather disruptions and other issues.
On Thursday, more than 5,100 flights within, into, or out of the United States were delayed, according to the website FlightAware, and almost 300 were canceled outright. American Airlines alone was hit with 900 delays, or 23% of all scheduled flights.
Analysts don't expect schedules will get back to normal until at least the fall, when demand settles down and new hires have had time to be trained up.
If you're flying over Labor Day weekend, here's what you need to know to avoid a travel nightmare, including what the airlines owe you if there's a cancellation or delay.
For more travel tips, here are some , guidance on and 19 things to add to your travel checklist. before leaving home.
Why have there been so many delays and cancellations?
Since Memorial Day, US-based airlines canceled more than 50,000 flights and delayed over a half-million, according to NPR. Delta said it canceled 100 scheduled daily flights in the US and Latin America between July 1 and Aug. 7. Southwest Airlines nixed almost 20,000 summer flights.
The biggest factor has been that airlines are incredibly short-staffed. When the pandemic slowed air travel to a trickle, many carriers bought out employees' contracts and encouraged older pilots to take early retirement. From December 2019 to December 2020, the airline industry workforce shrank by at least 114,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now carriers are clamoring to staff back up, but they're finding it hard to fill trained positions.
The shortages extend to ground staff, baggage handlers, gate personnel and other workers, FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs told CNET. "They did a lot of buyouts during the pandemic. It's a remarkable growth period and they're just back-footed."
It's particularly acute with pilots because it can take up to five years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to train someone to fly a commercial airplane.
"Most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren't enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years," United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a quarterly earnings call back in April, NBC News reported.
Extreme weather has also added to the problem: Severe thunderstorms have caused multiple delays and flight cancellations, and that's aside from hurricane and wildfire season. Aircraft can fly at lower altitudes to try to avoid storm systems, but that burns more fuel -- a dicey proposition given the high cost of jet fuel.
How to avoid having your flight delayed or canceled
There isn't much you can do to prevent a delay or cancellation. But there are some common-sense steps that will give you a better shot at making it to your destination -- or at least relaxing at home or in a hotel room, rather than stewing in the airport.
Leave extra time for layovers. You might think an hour is plenty of time to get from one gate to another, especially if you don't have to change terminals. But if the first leg of your journey is delayed, that hour can narrow down to 30 minutes. And with most airlines closing the plane doors about 15 minutes prior to departure, you could easily miss your connection.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Denver International Airport (DEN) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) top the list of busiest hubs over the Labor Day holiday, according to Hopper.
Don't book a late-night flight. If you miss a connection, most airlines will work diligently to get you on the next available flight. But if you booked the last flight of the day to your destination, that may mean having to wait until morning -- and either pacing through the airport for hours or booking a night in a nearby hotel.
Download the airline's app on your phone. Opt into flight notifications and start manually checking the status of your flight regularly, at least 24 hours in advance. As soon as you hear your flight has been cut, find out if you've been transferred to another flight.
Monitor the weather at both your departure and arrival airports. Start checking the weather in both places a few days before your flight. Some airlines will actually reschedule your flight in advance of a major weather front at no extra charge. If a storm is on its way, you might consider leaving a few days earlier or later or finding a different route.
Buy travel insurance. Depending on why your flight is canceled or delayed, the airline might not comp any meals, accommodations or transport you're forced to purchase. The payout for travel insurance may not cover all of your expenses, but it will definitely be more than the cost of a policy, typically.
What does your airline owe you if your flight is canceled?
In the US, if a flight is canceled because of something that is the airline's fault -- a mechanical issue or a staffing shortage -- the carrier is required to refund your ticket.
"If you get canceled for any reason -- you don't take your flight -- they have to offer you a cash refund," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NPR. "If you'd rather take miles or a different flight, fine. But that's up to you, not them. They've got to give you a refund. That's a basic rule."
The Department of Transportation website mandates airlines must also refund the cost of your ticket after a schedule change or significant delay, but the agency hasn't quite defined what constitutes a "significant delay."
"Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors -- including the length of the delay, the length of the flight and your particular circumstances," according to the DOT website. Whether a refund following a significant delay is warranted is determined "on a case-by-case basis."
If you don't request a refund, the airline is still responsible for getting you to your destination on the next available flight. Time is of the essence, though, so be proactive.
"A lot of the time you can reschedule yourself on the flight of your choice" using the airline's app, said David Slotnick, senior aviation reporter for The Points Guy. "It'll save you a lot of time and aggravation." (Like CNET, The Points Guy is owned by Red Ventures.)
If that's not possible, call the airline. Even if you get sent to an automated system, it may have a call-back function. You can still call if you're already at the airport. Do it while you're in line to talk to an agent and take whichever option is available first.
But it could be much later than your original flight. Under most circumstances, carriers should provide vouchers for meals and hotels. Make your plans quickly: Airport hotels fill up quickly amid widespread delays and cancellations.
Some airlines will work to get you on another flight with a different airline, Slotnick added, but not every airline has relationships with other carriers.
What if my flight is canceled due to bad weather?
While few carriers will offer meal or hotel vouchers in cases of inclement weather, some will issue weather waivers allowing passengers to rebook flights without penalty. There's typically a deadline by which the flight must be rebooked
To check about weather conditions along your route, visit your airline's travel alerts site. (It's also a good place to find out about airport issues, coronavirus travel guidelines and other advisories). Here are the travel advisory pages for:
What are airlines doing to address ongoing delays and cancellations?
Hiring more employees. "All the airlines are doing major hiring initiatives," Slotnick said. "They're rushing to hire pilots and deploy them." They're also trying to improve work conditions for existing workers: In April, Delta announced it would start paying flight attendants during boarding, rather than just once the plane door closes.
The move, a first for a major US airline, is seen as a countermeasure to a unionization push among workers.
Scheduling more flights. Some airlines are boosting service in popular corridors when they can. "They're trying to strike the right balance between adding flights and creating some slack in the system," Slotnick said.
For example, United Airlines recently launched or resumed 30 flights between the US and Europe, its largest expansion ever. Regular flights from Denver to Munich, Chicago to Zurich and New York to Bergen, Norway, are underway, as well as daily service between Boston and London.
When fully operational, United's transatlantic route network will be more than 25% larger than it was in 2019, before COVID-19 cratered air travel.
Scheduling fewer flights. Other airlines are going in the opposite direction, reducing their capacity rather than risk being forced to cancel a scheduled flight. JetBlue has already reduced its May routes by almost 10%, Conde Nast Traveler reported, and will likely make similar cuts throughout the summer.
"By reducing our flight schedule for the summer and continuing to hire new crewmembers, we hope to have more breathing room in the system to help ease some of the recent delays and cancellations that we've seen in the industry," a JetBlue spokesperson told the outlet.
Delta "temporarily cut" some Labor Day weekend flights from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and New York's LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports, The Washington Times reported, to deal with a large number of airline crew members and air traffic controllers who called in sick.
Giving passengers more notice. All the airlines are making a concerted effort to give passengers as much information as possible, Slotnick said, through text updates and other notifications.
"Even a year before the pandemic, airlines were trying to be proactive about informing passengers, even 24 or 48 hours in advance of a possible cancellation," he said.
United, Delta and other carriers are offering travel waivers to passengers to encourage them to move their flights out of busy time periods. They all waive flight-change fees and some are even foregoing the difference in price.
The Department of Transportation is holding airlines accountable
On Sept. 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation
The Aviation Consumer Protection site also has a dashboard that compares what policies are regarding rebooking, meal and hotel vouchers and complimentary ground transportation for carriers including Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United.
"Passengers deserve transparency and clarity on what to expect from an airline when there is a cancelation or disruption," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. "This dashboard collects that information in one place so travelers can easily understand their rights, compare airline practices, and make informed decisions."
Buttigieg said the goal was to get the airlines to "raise the bar."
"Look, Americans have had experiences with cancellations, delays and poor customer service that just aren't at an acceptable level," he told NPR. "A lot of the airlines are not quite transparent about how and when they'll take care of passengers. "So we're going to put that information out ourselves."
Just knowing that information is out there for air travelers to see has spurred carriers to improve their offerings, Buttigieg added.
The Department is also collecting comments on a proposed rule requiring airlines to proactively inform passengers about their right to a refund. It would also provide a clearer definition of a "significant change" to a scheduled flight and require airlines to provide non-expiring vouchers to passengers unable to fly because they contracted COVID-19 or other communicable diseases.
The proposal would also mandate carriers that receive pandemic assistance issue those passengers refunds instead of vouchers.
Are any airlines better or worse in terms of cancellations?
Without naming names, Slotnick says that, broadly speaking, low-cost airlines have tighter margins with less slack, so theoretically you're more likely to face a cancellation.
But booking with a big carrier doesn't mean you're immune.
"The regionals have parked a lot of planes because they don't have enough staff," Bangs said. "And a lot of people who book on a major airline don't realize they're actually flying with a smaller carrier."
SkyWest, a smaller airline out of St. George, Utah, subcontracts for Delta, United, American and Alaska Airlines. So does Indiana-based Republic Airways.
Sometimes, bigger is indeed better: Last year, Delta had the best record in cancellation rates, according to The Wall Street Journal's annual airline rankings. The Atlanta-based airline scrubbed 0.6% of its scheduled departures in 2021, a third of the industry average of 1.8%.