Flying This Summer? Expect Delays

By Anonymous

The summer travel season is poised to inflict pain on both U.S. airlines and fliers.

A record 257 million people are expected to fly with U.S. airlines this summer, according to trade group Airlines for America. Those travelers will likely have to deal with the fallout from multiple challenges weighing on the nation’s air travel network, including the extended grounding of Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jets, runway closures and labor shortages. Anticipating major logistical hurdles, airlines are rushing to make alternate arrangements.

Some of the busiest airports, from New York to Los Angeles, are undergoing construction work, including on runways. Labor disputes involving airline maintenance staff have been heating up, exacerbating staff shortages caused by the tight job market. And U.S. carriers will operate this summer without about 100 737 MAX jets they had counted on to ferry passengers between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The planes remain grounded after two fatal crashes over the past year that killed 346 people aboard Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air flights.

The MAX accounted for less than 5% of daily flights at the U.S. airlines that use the aircraft, a small slice of their capacity. But scuttling those flights has crimped carriers’ expansion plans this summer, leaving fewer options for fliers.

Summer is traditionally the most profitable season for carriers, thanks to fuller flights and higher fares. But operating near capacity can also amplify the effect of snafus related to bad weather or other problems.

Lindsey Breeden, who travels several times a month from Los Angeles, said he has noticed that his last few flights have been fuller and standby lists longer—sometimes with as many as 60 names.

“I haven’t really seen an empty seat in a while,” Mr. Breeden said.

Packed for the Flight

An increasing number of U.S. air travelers this summer may mean delays.

Flying This Summer? Expect Delays

Summer passengers on U.S. airlines

300

 million

200

100

0

2010

’18

’17

’16

’15

’14

’13

’12

’11

’19*

Sources of summer delays, 2018†

Change in summer capacity, 2018-19

Weather

American

4%

United

37%

Delta

Southwest

Alaska

27

JetBlue

Spirit

Hawaiian

Allegiant

31

5

0

20

–5%

10

15

Flying This Summer? Expect Delays

Summer passengers on U.S. airlines

 million

300

200

100

0

’11

2010

’12

’13

’14

’15

’16

’17

’18

’19*

Sources of summer delays, 2018†

Change in summer capacity, 2018-19

Weather

American

4%

United

37%

Delta

Southwest

Alaska

27

JetBlue

Spirit

Hawaiian

Allegiant

31

20

–5%

5

10

15

0

Flying This Summer? Expect Delays

Summer passengers on U.S. airlines

300

 million

200

100

0

’15

’16

’17

’18

’19*

’13

’12

2010

’14

’11

Sources of summer delays, 2018†

Change in summer capacity, 2018-19

Weather

American

4%

United

37%

Delta

Southwest

Alaska

27

JetBlue

Spirit

Hawaiian

Allegiant

31

20

–5

10

15

5

0

Flying This Summer? Expect Delays

Summer passengers on U.S. airlines

300

 million

200

100

0

’15

’16

’17

’18

’19*

2010

’14

’12

’11

’13

Sources of summer delays, 2018†

Weather

4%

37%

27

31

Change in summer capacity, 2018-19

American

United

Delta

Southwest

Alaska

JetBlue

Spirit

Hawaiian

Allegiant

20

5

–5%

0

10

15

Carriers are also facing rising costs, including higher fuel prices. American Airlines Group Inc. last month lowered its 2019 earnings guidance by $1.50 a share to a range of $4 to $6 a share, citing the MAX grounding and fuel prices.

The timeline for the MAX’s return to the skies remains murky, with Federal Aviation Administration officials refusing to predict when the fleet will fly again.

Airlines had been hoping the meeting of global regulators in Fort Worth, Texas, this week would provide more clarity. Airline chiefs will soon have to decide whether to extend their MAX cancellations deeper into the summer and beyond if regulators don’t provide a clear timeline.

American Airlines has canceled MAX flying through Aug. 19. President Robert Isom said Tuesday that the carrier will re-evaluate in early June whether to keep the jets off its schedule, depending on what regulators say.

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United Continental Holdings Inc. said Friday that it will withhold its 14 MAX planes from its schedules into early August, about a month longer than previously planned. That amounts to about 40 to 45 cancelled flights a day in July.

“I know we want those aircraft working—I know it’s peak summer season,” Chief Executive Oscar Munoz said this week. “We cannot lose sight of the fact this has to be done in a safe way.”

For passengers, the hassles start on the ground.

Los Angeles International Airport feels congested even before the typical crush of summer vacationers, said Paul Lanyi, a marketing contractor who flies a few times a month. Construction has led to car-lane closures and crowded parking lots, and a ride-share pickup point has been moved to a busy airport entrance. Mr. Lanyi said he plans to leave home up to 30 minutes earlier than usual to get to his gate on time.

“Summer is no fun at LAX, but I’m certain this summer will be the worst I have experienced living in Los Angeles for 15 years,” he said.

A shortage of air-traffic controllers and aircraft maintenance staff caused by the tight labor market, as well as the possible loss of federal security staff redeployed to the southern U.S. border, is adding to airlines’ woes.

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American’s operations were hobbled last summer by severe storms at several hubs and a computer glitch at a regional unit that led to thousands of canceled flights. Eager to avoid similar disturbances this year, the biggest U.S. carrier by traffic is planning to have more planes ready at the start of each day and to turn them around more quickly between flights.

“Peak schedule periods are the ones that are most important for customers and also the ones where the operation is stretched the thinnest,” said Kerry Philipovitch, American’s senior vice president of customer experience. “We’ve spent an incredible amount of time and effort across the company to get ready.”

The carrier is scheduling maintenance early and deferring nonessential work to have fewer planes out of service during the height of the summer travel season in a fleet shorn of its two dozen 737 MAX jets. American was due to receive more MAX jets for peak season.

This summer, labor strife is also a threat to American’s operations. The airline sued unions representing its mechanics this week, saying a coordinated work slowdown was delaying flights. Labor groups have rejected those claims.

Spirit Airlines Inc. plans to position spare parts and additional flight crews in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to compensate for the closure of one of two runways there for five months of renovations scheduled to begin on June 3. The airline has improved its on-time ratings in recent years to become the nation’s third-most reliable airline.

“It’s going to be a challenging summer for us,” said Scott Haralson, the airline’s chief financial officer.

Crew shortages can cascade through an airline’s operations, especially during bad weather events, as Delta Air Lines Inc. found during spring break of 2017. Staff were unable to call in for new assignments as phone lines became jammed. The airline has the second-best on-time record after Hawaiian Holdings Inc.

This summer, Delta plans to coordinate the schedules and movements of its staff with a new app. The carrier also has invested in improved weather forecasting, said Erik Snell, Delta’s senior vice president for operations and customer center. Delta is using artificial intelligence to minimize the ripple effect of delays and cancellations through its flight schedule.

Mr. Snell said Delta has embedded staff at the Transportation Security Administration and air-traffic control centers to help plan to avoid congestion that typically accounts for almost a third of summer flight delays.

The FAA is helping airlines plan for and limit disruptions by informing them of potential slowdowns a day in advance, said Steve West, senior director of operations control at Southwest Airlines Co.

“They’re drilling down, giving us a lot more detail ahead of time,” Mr. West said.

Write to Alison Sider at [email protected] and Doug Cameron at [email protected]