Airlines Cancel Thousands Of Flights, Have Christmas Disaster

Airlines Cancel Thousands Of Flights, Have Christmas Disaster

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This holiday season I sure am grateful to be at home, and to not be traveling. Admittedly there’s some horrible weather out there, though the current operational performance at airlines is jaw-droppingly bad.

Airlines cancel & delay up to 90% of flights

All major airlines in the United States are having some operational issues at the moment, given the weather system that we’re seeing. There have been issues for several days now, though I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some data from Christmas day.

Historically December 25 has been a pretty quiet and smooth day for traveling, since most people try to avoid traveling on Christmas itself. This year it’s a different story. Just how bad did airlines do? According to data from FlightAware:

  • Alaska had issues with 64% of flights — 21% were canceled, 43% were delayed
  • Allegiant had issues with 47% of flights — 9% were canceled, 38% were delayed
  • American had issues with 26% of flights — 0% were canceled, 26% were delayed
  • Delta had issues with 46% of flights — 21% were canceled, 25% were delayed
  • Frontier had issues with 48% of flights — 8% were canceled, 40% were delayed
  • JetBlue had issues with 70% of flights — 11% were canceled, 59% were delayed
  • Southwest had issues with 90% of flights — 42% were canceled, 48% were delayed
  • Spirit had issues with 73% of flights — 25% were canceled, 48% were delayed
  • United had issues with 52% of flights — 9% were canceled, 43% were delayed

While no airlines did great, there’s still a huge amount of variation here. Southwest had a horrible day, with 90% of flights impacted. Alaska, JetBlue, and Spirit also did quite bad. American, meanwhile, was an outlier in being fairly operationally reliable (it’s not often you hear that!).

Southwest is doing the worst this holiday season

Why are airlines operating so unreliably?

Obviously there’s bad weather in many parts of the country right now, but on the surface that doesn’t explain why airlines are having problems to the extent that we’re seeing. Canceling and delaying 90% of flights? That can’t directly be attributed to weather.

The pandemic shut down global travel for some amount of time. Then in early 2021, we saw a huge boost in demand for travel (at least domestically within the United States), and that trend has continued ever since. For well over 18 months now, we’ve seen airlines struggling with getting sufficient staffing.

However, both airlines and the government have been working to put plans in place to ensure that this would be a smooth holiday travel season. Where did things go wrong? We expect some number of cancelations with the current weather situation, but why have things gotten so bad?

Well, this appears to be the perfect storm for airlines, both literally and figuratively. Airlines seem to have been fully prepared for a standard holiday travel season, though weren’t prepared for a complicated holiday travel season.

Airline operations are incredibly complex, and when there’s an issue in one part of the system, there’s a huge domino effect throughout a carrier’s entire network. Worst of all, there’s no easy way to simply “reset” things, given that planes and crews in one city will often be needed in another city to operate a flight.

The perfect example of how this goes beyond weather is Southwest Airlines’ meltdown in Denver. Several days ago the airline declared a state of emergency, threatening to fire ramp workers for a variety of reasons. The airline was so short staffed among ramp workers that some flights had to turn around once already in the air, due to lack of staff in Denver. At least in some situations, it sure seems like airlines had quite a few people call in sick, without enough replacements to perform essential tasks.

While we can hope that airline operational performance improves somewhat, expect that it will be several days before things return to normal. Even once flights do operate normally, it still doesn’t mean everyone will be able to get to their destination. Flights are packed, so the people who were on canceled flights are struggling to get rebooked due to lack of available seats.

It’s a very rough holiday travel season

Bottom line

Operationally, airlines in the United States had the worst Christmas in years, and there are no signs of things improving significantly. The horrible weather we’ve seen around the country precipitated this, though airlines also share some of the blame.

Airlines largely don’t have sufficient staffing to deal with operational issues during periods of peak demand. While airlines have promised that they’re back to being able to operate reliably, the current performance suggests otherwise.

In fairness, some airlines (like American) are doing quite well, while others (like Southwest) aren’t.

If you’re traveling this holiday season, what has your experience been like?

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  1. Damaris Lucille Rodriguez Guest

    Stuck at SeaTac Christmas Eve causing missed flight from Newark to CVG then stuck at Newark ALL Christmas Day And evening due to multiple delays ending with cancelled Flight. United put me up for the night at a Hilton Hotel 23 miles from the airport but by the time they got me there by Lyft and the Hotel was able to get me checked in. With no shuttle I had maybe 2 hours to figure...

    Stuck at SeaTac Christmas Eve causing missed flight from Newark to CVG then stuck at Newark ALL Christmas Day And evening due to multiple delays ending with cancelled Flight. United put me up for the night at a Hilton Hotel 23 miles from the airport but by the time they got me there by Lyft and the Hotel was able to get me checked in. With no shuttle I had maybe 2 hours to figure out how to get back to airport so . . . NO sleep AND... I had to pay $90 for cab then I flew Newark to Norfolk to D.C. to Cincinnati.

  2. Lisa Gillespie Guest

    Daughter giving birth just got stationed north Carolina gave birth while we were sitting on a runway for an hour after paying 2 grand for 2 one way tickets after our flight was canceled. Took 2 days to get there. Thank God they had made friends with a neighbor who on Christmas day watched the 3 year old. We are in our 60s left on the 22nd got there to whatch the 3 year old...

    Daughter giving birth just got stationed north Carolina gave birth while we were sitting on a runway for an hour after paying 2 grand for 2 one way tickets after our flight was canceled. Took 2 days to get there. Thank God they had made friends with a neighbor who on Christmas day watched the 3 year old. We are in our 60s left on the 22nd got there to whatch the 3 year old 3 days later .We were on a runway in Newark when she gave Birth. Reason we were waiting for a pilot. Then on runway for a hour waiting for a crew. Then had to pay for a rental car because my sin in law was with my daughter. No more flying we could have drove and ate lobster every night for our cost. Flyers lets strike. Oh and my luggage just got her today 7 days late. MORE COST.THEY CAN LOAD UP THE PLANES.NO RESPONSIBILITY!! We are broken hearted and exhausted. I have never traveled at Christmas but was unavoidable.

  3. Jeffery Allen Guest

    Steve my 18 year old brother worked 7 incoming flights at Orlando by himself. He processed 600 bags alone. He’s all bruised, yes it’s American Airlines and Ben it’s nice to hear they did so well at the expense of people like my brother.

  4. Jeffery Allen Guest

    Maybe we should treat our airport employees better, no? My 18 year old brother slaved himself and handled 7 incoming flights processed 600 bags at Orlando Airport all by himself ALONE. Everyone else walked off and gave up. Only to get yelled at by idiot customers to the point the airport police had to arrest one of them. All this crap for $13 an hour, SHAME ON ALL THE INCONSIDERATE PEOPLE, SHAME ON THE AIRLINE MANAGEMENT.

  5. Jon Guest

    My flight was cancelled and the next available flight is 4 days later. I hope that flight won't be cancelled too.

  6. Steve Diamond

    Seems like a lot of people wanted the day off and didnt want to work. This should change as we go further into a recession and unemployment ticks up. Im glad i dont have to get in plane over the holidays and can drive to my family. I flew on the 20th last year and vowed never again to fly so close to xmas. I cant imagine how chaotic this year has been.

    1. Scudder Diamond

      What a fooling comment—SWA’s total operational meltdown has absolutely nothing to to with people “not wanting to work”.

  7. George N Romey Guest

    The little secret is the US domestic airlines make money by hawking credit cards and running bare bone operations that are stretched to the max. As long as airlines fly around on lots of unprofitable fares hoping to make the difference up in credit card and other retail partner income and stressing the system nothing will change.

  8. Hank Tarn Guest

    I think too many young people are travelling without need and should just stay at home. When I was a young adult Americans mostly went without long haul travel but we were happy, we paid for our mortgages and we were far too busy working locally to be flying off to Hawaii and sunny places for Christmas. You do not need to fly away for every vacation.

    1. Nonna U. Guest

      Wow! What a cynical comment! “You do not need to fly…” you must be one of those in favor of CCP rule in the Western World! If people can afford to travel, and have the desire to travel, then what is it of your business if they travel each and every holiday they’re alive! My kids and grandkids live close to me so no one flew over Christmas but just earlier in DECEMBER two went...

      Wow! What a cynical comment! “You do not need to fly…” you must be one of those in favor of CCP rule in the Western World! If people can afford to travel, and have the desire to travel, then what is it of your business if they travel each and every holiday they’re alive! My kids and grandkids live close to me so no one flew over Christmas but just earlier in DECEMBER two went to Disney and on a cruise (with us) and another goes skiing in a few days with his family. GOOD FOR THEM! One of the best things about being alive is having the ability to travel and see the world. I hope my family continues to do so to broaden their horizons and make great memories with their families! Yes, Virginia, you do need to fly!

    2. Jeffery Allen Guest

      The issue here Nonna isn’t the people wanting to travel, the issue is poor management. The idiots at the corporate offices are so busy stuffing their pockets that they left us with an infrastructure comparable to the CCP dream. Flying is freedom! I totally agree with you on that but enough is enough, this season shows that some sort of regulation or restructure is necessary.

  9. DSK Guest

    And we saw Brian the Points Guy (himself!) in the United Lounge at EWR Christmas morning. Just tip me over with a feather!

  10. travelgirl Guest

    Amazing that AA can "delay" flights so that cancellations are zero
    For example 2 777-300s were "delayed" from LHR to JFK for almost 24 hours on 24th and flew on 25th!!!!
    Passengers and staff missed Christmas Day with family

    1. Jr Guest

      What would you rather have, delay or cancellation?

  11. yehuda kovesh Guest

    I took AA62 to Paris CDG from MIA. Everything at MIA was smooth and had a wonderful time at the Flagship Lounge. The flight was a quick 7 hours 30 minutes and on arrival at CDG on the morning of 24 december, everything seemed so eery as Terminal 2 A was virtually deserted. The onboard service (we are not talking about it here) on AA was nothing short of Horrible but we all have come...

    I took AA62 to Paris CDG from MIA. Everything at MIA was smooth and had a wonderful time at the Flagship Lounge. The flight was a quick 7 hours 30 minutes and on arrival at CDG on the morning of 24 december, everything seemed so eery as Terminal 2 A was virtually deserted. The onboard service (we are not talking about it here) on AA was nothing short of Horrible but we all have come to accept it. As mentioned the airlines operations are so complex, I was glad to get to CDG without any problems.

  12. J. Nap Guest

    Southwest was the worst. Our flight on Friday was cancelled. The SW agent that rebooked our flight booked 2 different reservations for my family and I but didn’t make me aware. So when I confirmed our December 25th flight, I panicked because it was only for me. Then our flight on Christmas, which was the one that was rebooked, was cancelled after we had been at the airport for 5 hours after the flight numerous delayed. I thought it was very inconsiderate of SW.

  13. Doug Guest

    Southwest's problems seem to be worsening if that is possible. I have family that was supposed to fly from oakland to memphis today through Denver. Both flights have now been cancelled, but the southwest website is also down, making it impossible to find an alternate route. I have been tracking other potential back up flights - United, Delta and AA from San Francisco, and the prices for those has been escalating minute by minute as other flights get cancelled.

  14. John Guest

    Southwest airlines runs on a string. One hiccup and their business model falls apart. My brother was cancelled Thursday, Friday, rebooked for Monday (first available) and cancelled again.

    Phones and website don't work. What a horribly run company.

  15. Donna Diamond

    My niece tried for two days to get from SAN to Northern California on Southwest and phoned yesterday at noon asking to be picked up from the airport as her last of three rescheduled attempted flights was again canceled. SW couldn’t even get its flights off within California this past weekend.

  16. Eric Guest

    Was at JetBlue at JFK yesterday. Our flight mercifully was on time, but the delay/cancelation board was terrible. And I can’t figure out what JetBlue’s excuse is (other than their normal poor operations). NYC wasn’t that impacted by the weather by Christmas Day and JetBlue doesn’t have any Midwest/mountain hubs

  17. Bobo Bolinski Guest

    The root cause of the problem boils down to this: Not enough "slack" in the system to deal with unexpected issues that crop up with little or no notice.

    That includes bad weather and even REALLY bad weather. That includes equipment failures. That includes employee labor issues (overt or covert or just unmotivated workers feeling like their jobs suck so screw the boss if it's cold outside). That includes supply chain disruptions. And more.

    ...

    The root cause of the problem boils down to this: Not enough "slack" in the system to deal with unexpected issues that crop up with little or no notice.

    That includes bad weather and even REALLY bad weather. That includes equipment failures. That includes employee labor issues (overt or covert or just unmotivated workers feeling like their jobs suck so screw the boss if it's cold outside). That includes supply chain disruptions. And more.

    The airlines (like most businesses) worship at the alter of just-in-time delivery, running lean, reducing every cost, and other bean-counter euphemisms for cutting things close.

    The airlines are highly profitable currently. They also received massive bailouts from taxpayers (those same taxpayers who have come to depend on them).

    It's time to re-regulate the airlines. There's a long list of things that should be re-regulated. One of those should be mandates for "resilience" -- to build-in enough "slack" into their businesses (including adequate staffing levels), to enable airlines to continue functioning to a high degree even when things go wrong. Some of the things that go wrong are 100% predictable (seasonal holiday travel demand; bad weather in the winter); such predictable surprises should not blind-side airline management (disgruntled employees are pretty easy to notice, and ways of keeping employees motivated are not mysterious secrets).

    It's possible to build businesses that are able to stand up to challenges like these without effectively collapsing. Hospitals (which are businesses, too) manage to do that, as do other well-run businesses. Most airlines simply have chosen not to structure their businesses for resiliency, and they have demonstrated that over and over.

    This is an appropriate time for a regulatory nudge to get them to do better (paging Mayor Pete - please pickup the white courtesy phone...). Set standards, hold the airlines to them, hold them and their executives accountable. Yes, some prices might go up. If we have to live without $19 flight tickets on low cost carriers, we will somehow survive.

    1. Chris Guest

      Hospitals have nurses working 48 hour shifts to be "resilient". Could you imagine airline personnel doing that?

    2. Dick Bupkiss Guest

      Pay them enough, and they'll be happy to do so. Or have enough staff available (slack in the system) so 48-hour shifts ae not necessary. It's a cost of doing business. This is called..."management."

      My spouse works as a nurse in a surgical OR. When they are short staffed (as they always seem to be lately), they crank up the bonus pay - 1.5X, 2X and 3X hourly. She's working an overnight shift tonight and...

      Pay them enough, and they'll be happy to do so. Or have enough staff available (slack in the system) so 48-hour shifts ae not necessary. It's a cost of doing business. This is called..."management."

      My spouse works as a nurse in a surgical OR. When they are short staffed (as they always seem to be lately), they crank up the bonus pay - 1.5X, 2X and 3X hourly. She's working an overnight shift tonight and getting very highly paid for it, because she is needed and they're willing to compensate her enough to motivate her. She's happy to work that extra shift.

      It is (or should be) no different for pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, baggage handlers, garbage collectors, or any other job. The airlines (and many poorly-run businesses) simply won't pay enough and treat employees like cattle (just like they treat customers). This is simply a business decision that they make. It's not the only choice they could make, but they have no reason to do much to ensure that their employees are staffed and motivated adequately.

      Basic economics and common sense. Not complicated (unless it's your religion to screw employees every chance you get and you only see them as an expense to be minimized).

  18. JD Guest

    Why are you giving Delta a pass here? They had less flights "affected", but canceled over 20% of their schedule. Kind of easy to stay closer to on-time when you don't operate a huge chunk of your schedule. And strand 1/5th of your passengers.

  19. Scooter Guest

    Flew from Florida to San Diego yesterday. Houston airport was a zoo - big thanks to the gate agents who somehow kept everyone looped in on what was happening.

  20. Icarus Guest

    Much of the USA and Canada is affected by severe winter weather.

    Employees can’t get to work as roads are impassable or they are displaced in other parts of the country.

    Even if they are at the airport, employees cannot work outside as it’s dangerous. It’s also better for airlines to proactively cancel rather than risk crew and aircraft being unable to return, therefore disrupting the rotation.

    Just about the only unaffected...

    Much of the USA and Canada is affected by severe winter weather.

    Employees can’t get to work as roads are impassable or they are displaced in other parts of the country.

    Even if they are at the airport, employees cannot work outside as it’s dangerous. It’s also better for airlines to proactively cancel rather than risk crew and aircraft being unable to return, therefore disrupting the rotation.

    Just about the only unaffected mainland airports were in California, where in Los Angeles it was 27c on Xmas day.

  21. Bob Guest

    Air Canada had a good day. Only 67% of flights delayed/cancelled.

    Thats better than normal when its sunny.

    1. bruh Guest

      Credit where it's due. Although I constantly complain about AC all the time, they really did shine through when they were needed the most. WestJet gave up on YVR and YYZ, but AC really did try operating in and out of these airports. Yes, it was terrible at times because some flights couldn't find gates and there were no staff to handle the aircraft and the entire baggage scene was a mess in the arrivals...

      Credit where it's due. Although I constantly complain about AC all the time, they really did shine through when they were needed the most. WestJet gave up on YVR and YYZ, but AC really did try operating in and out of these airports. Yes, it was terrible at times because some flights couldn't find gates and there were no staff to handle the aircraft and the entire baggage scene was a mess in the arrivals hall at YYZ. But, they did their job well this time compared to previous years.

  22. Jeff Guest

    Was supposed to fly delta to south Florida from LaGuardia. On three different canceled flights - one 10 min before boarding. Didn’t end up making it home for Christmas. Really sucked.

  23. Andrea Guest

    Any ideas for how we get our bags from DIA SW. They have held our bags since Thurs. No info. No details. Our flights are perm cancelled

  24. Lou Guest

    Delta canceled Atlanta-Rio two days in a row both ways

  25. Davis Guest

    Good for AA, managing to run a reliable operation in awful circumstances. They’ve made such good progress in terms of their reliability lately.

    1. Scooter Guest

      It also helps that AA has no mountain west presence. SLC and DEN got crushed yesterday

    2. Jr Guest

      But Dallas did get it bad I hear.

  26. Jim Guest

    I suggest, somewhat controversially, that a further exacerbating factor is that airlines have infinite discretion to declare any IROP as weather-related... thus relieving them of any duty of care. If they were potentially on the hook for lodging, meals, etc., they'd have more resilience built in.

    1. Icarus Guest

      With the exception of EU/U.K. carriers departing the US /Canada.

    2. chasgoose Guest

      Yeah at a certain point, like with what we are seeing at Southwest, “weather” ceases to be a legitimate excuse. If an airline’s issues are due to their inability to deal with weather due to their refusal to invest in the necessary resources to do so, then they should be responsible for the consequences of their shortsightedness, not passengers.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

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Scooter Guest

It also helps that AA has no mountain west presence. SLC and DEN got crushed yesterday

4
Steve Diamond

Seems like a lot of people wanted the day off and didnt want to work. This should change as we go further into a recession and unemployment ticks up. Im glad i dont have to get in plane over the holidays and can drive to my family. I flew on the 20th last year and vowed never again to fly so close to xmas. I cant imagine how chaotic this year has been.

2
Bobo Bolinski Guest

The root cause of the problem boils down to this: Not enough "slack" in the system to deal with unexpected issues that crop up with little or no notice. That includes bad weather and even REALLY bad weather. That includes equipment failures. That includes employee labor issues (overt or covert or just unmotivated workers feeling like their jobs suck so screw the boss if it's cold outside). That includes supply chain disruptions. And more. The airlines (like most businesses) worship at the alter of just-in-time delivery, running lean, reducing every cost, and other bean-counter euphemisms for cutting things close. The airlines are highly profitable currently. They also received massive bailouts from taxpayers (those same taxpayers who have come to depend on them). <b>It's time to re-regulate the airlines.</b> There's a long list of things that should be re-regulated. One of those should be mandates for "resilience" -- to build-in enough "slack" into their businesses (including adequate staffing levels), to enable airlines to continue functioning to a high degree even when things go wrong. Some of the things that go wrong are 100% predictable (seasonal holiday travel demand; bad weather in the winter); such predictable surprises should not blind-side airline management (disgruntled employees are pretty easy to notice, and ways of keeping employees motivated are not mysterious secrets). It's possible to build businesses that are able to stand up to challenges like these without effectively collapsing. Hospitals (which are businesses, too) manage to do that, as do other well-run businesses. Most airlines simply have chosen not to structure their businesses for resiliency, and they have demonstrated that over and over. This is an appropriate time for a regulatory nudge to get them to do better (<i>paging Mayor Pete - please pickup the white courtesy phone...</i>). Set standards, hold the airlines to them, hold them and their executives accountable. Yes, some prices might go up. If we have to live without $19 flight tickets on low cost carriers, we will somehow survive.

2
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