The good news is people are flying again. The bad news is people are flying again -- and airlines can barely handle the skyrocketing surge in business.
In February, the 23 major US airlines carried approximately 54.5 million passengers. That's a boost of 106% over the same time last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
And the numbers will likely only go up in the coming months: According to a March 10 Harris Poll, 85% of Americans plan to travel this summer.
The carriers "are having trouble matching supply and demand," said David Slotnick, senior airline business reporter for CNET's sister site The Points Guy. "They're trying to guess what demand is going to mean, while still leaving slack in case of emergency. And the demand has been just amazingly high since around last Thanksgiving."
As a result, delays and cancellations have become increasingly common. And the problem isn't going away anytime soon.
"Airlines and other industry experts are already warning travelers these delays and cancellations could extend through the summer months," Jonathan Nichols, vice president of underwriting at WorldTrips Travel Insurance, told CBS News.
Read on to find out what's causing all the canceled flights, what the airlines are doing about it and how you can save yourself a lot of headache if your flight gets nixed.
Why have there been so many flight delays and cancellations?
The biggest factor affecting cancellations is 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.
As a result, from December 2019 to December 2020, the number of airline workers shrunk 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 positions.
"People just aren't going into flying the way they used to," Kathleen Bangs, a commercial pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware, which provides real-time flight data, told CNET. "Interest [in aviation] is much lower now than it was even a decade ago."
Even if an airline can coax a pilot back from retirement, she said, they still have to be retrained.
The shortages extend to ground staff, baggage handlers, gate personnel and other workers, said Slotnick. "They did a lot of buyouts during the pandemic. It's a remarkable growth period, and they're just back-footed."
A run of bad weather has affected flight schedules
The first weekend in April saw thousands of travelers stranded by a perfect storm of bad weather, technological issues and labor disputes.
Thunderstorms led the Federal Aviation Administration to limit flights across much of Florida starting Friday, April 1, creating a cascade of delays and cancellations across the US. More than 3,500 domestic flights were scrapped that weekend -- about one in 13 -- with another 650 canceled on that Monday, according to the Associated Press.
Slotnick said that ongoing climate change means we should expect more extreme weather conditions causing more delays and cancellations.
On April 4, Alaska Airlines canceled 120 flights, stranding some 15,300 passengers. The carrier, the fifth-largest in the US, initially put the blame on a shortage of available pilots rather than the weather. It's been mired for three years in a contract dispute with the pilots union, members of which were preparing to picket that very day.
How to avoid having your flight canceled
There isn't much travelers can do to prevent a delay or cancellation. But there are some commonsense 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.
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.
What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled
Time is of the essence, so be proactive about rescheduling your flight.
"A lot of the time you can reschedule yourself on the flight of your choice" using the airline's app, Slotnick said. "It'll save you a lot of time and aggravation."
If that's not possible, call the airline. Even if you get sent to an automated system, they 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.
What does the airline owe you if your flight is canceled?
In the US, if a flight is delayed or canceled, the airline is responsible for getting you to your destination. But that could be much later than your original flight, with no assistance with food or accommodations.
If the cancellation is the airline's fault -- like because of mechanical issues or a staffing shortage -- the airline is required to provide vouchers for meals and hotels. Make your plans quickly, though. Airport hotels fill up quickly amid widespread delays and cancellations.
Some airlines will work to get you on another flight with another airline, Slotkin said, but not every airline has relationships with other carriers.
The US Department of Transportation mandates that airlines must refund the cost of your ticket after a cancellation, schedule change or significant delay. But the agency hasn't 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.
It determines whether a refund following a significant delay is warranted "on a case-by-case basis."
What are airlines doing to address 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: This week, 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 announced Tuesday that it's launching or resuming 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, will begin in the coming weeks, 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.
Southwest Airlines, the world's largest low-cost carrier, is cutting more than 8,000 domestic flights in June "to adjust to capacity," the company told The Business Journals.
Alaska Airlines said in a statement that it's reducing the number of flights through the end of June by about 2% "to match our current pilot capacity."
Giving passengers more notice. All the airlines are making a concerted effort to give passengers as much information as possible, Slotkin 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 cancelation," he said.
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%.