Americans with travel plans this Fourth of July weekend are being warned to check for flight delays and cancellations as extreme weather and airport chaos interrupt a record-breaking number of travellers.
Around 50 million people are expected to travel this weekend surpassing the holiday’s pre-Covid record of 49 million in 2019, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).
The spike in travelers has only added to the chaos at the nation’s airports where hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded for days.
Between Monday and Wednesday, more than 24,000 flights were delayed and 5,600 cancelled due to staffing shortages, wildfire smoke from Canada, severe storms, and a crippling heatwave across the South.
On Thursday, the busiest day of travel since the pandemic, over 8,300 flights were delayed and some 750 flights were cancelled, mostly impacting United Airlines.
On Saturday, 2,120 flights were delayed and over 120 cancelled, according to monitoring site FlightAware’s “Misery Map”.
Most delays and cancellations were at Chicago O’Hare International Airport as the Illinois region is expected to see severe thunderstorms with possible hail, damaging winds and flooding throughout the weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
Earlier this week, Chicago experienced among the worst air quality in the world due to smoke from Canadian wildfires blowing over the Midwest.
Thunderstorms have been the bane of air travellers’ existence across the US this week.
The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) paused flights bound for LaGuardia Airport and John F Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey earlier this week due to thunderstorms.
Sonia Hendrix, a passenger travelling from Colorado to New York, told The Associated Press that it took her four days to get home. She spent one night in Atlanta and two in Orlando.
“This is not all Delta’s fault,” Ms Hendrix said. “Their pilots and flight crews were working very hard. I blame the FAA. I blame Buttigieg for sitting on his hands and not staffing up air traffic control centers sooner.”
More storms are expected to hit the Ohio Valley and parts of the Northeast this holiday weekend with airports in those regions facing potential delays and cancellations.
“We are closely watching air travel this week, weather has been rough, especially in the last four or five days, caused a lot of cancellations and delays for many passengers around the country,” Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in a video posted to Twitter.
“We’ve known that summer is going to be a stress test on the system,” Mr Buttigieg said while expressing optimism about the FAA’s ability to cope.
As parts of the northern US faces downpours and thunderstorms, southern states are in the grip of a three-week long heat wave which is showing few signs of relenting this weekend.
More than 50 million people from Arizona to Louisiana are under an “excessive heat warning” or a “heat advisory”.
Southeastern Louisiana was forecast to be “dangerously hot” on Saturday with the heat index – how temperatures feel in reality – expected to be 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43C)- 115F (46C).
Extreme heat can cause problems for air travel, FAA executive Tim Arel told WTOP. When its hotter, planes can have a harder time getting off the ground.
“Aircraft operators then have to make a decision about adding more fuel or less fuel — flying shorter routes with less fuel. It is a real factor during those warmer months and does limit some types of operations at those places,” Mr Arel said.
But weather alone hasn’t caused the travel chaos.
United CEO Scott Kirby blamed the FAA for the delays which affected nearly 150,000 passengers. Mr Kirby said short staffing meant the FAA was unable to deal with bad weather.
Nearly 50 per cent of United’s flights were delayed and 18 per cent were cancelled on the busiest travel day, Thursday.
Frustrated passengers wondered why the airline was facing such issues knowing this past week and weekend would have a high influx of travellers.
“It doesn’t really seem like United has a process for mass cancellations,” Calvin Guerrero, a passenger travelling from Chicago to Costa Rica on Wednesday, told The Points Guy.
United faced more controversy when it emerged that Mr Kirby took a private jet out of New York City on Wednesday while nearly a quarter of the airline’s flights were delayed.
He later apologised for the “insensitive” and “wrong” decision and thanked United staff for working around the clock to help with delayed flights.
Yet more delays and cancellations could be in store this coming week due to another factor – wireless providers are expected to launch new 5G systems near major airports beginning on Saturday.
Though 5G has been available for a few years, there are concerns that the signal could interfere with a plane’s altimeter which is used to measure altitude.
AT&T and Verizon agreed to give airlines an extra year to outfit planes with the most updated equipment before launching 5G around major airport hubs to proactively prevent any 5G interference.
In an email sent to the trade organisation, Airlines for America, last Friday, Secretary Buttigieg said that from Saturday, only planes upgraded for 5G will be allowed to land when visibility is poor.
He said that while more than 80 per cent of domestic fleets reported that they updated their equipment, there are “some operators” that “still have work to do.”
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