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Flight problems mostly over — except at United

<i>Damian Dovarganes/AP</i><br/>Travelers wait in line at the departure area check-in at the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International airport
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Travelers wait in line at the departure area check-in at the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International airport

By Chris Isidore, Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace, CNN

New York (CNN) — The problems with flight delays and cancellations that have plagued US travelers this week are mostly over — except at struggling United Airlines.

Tracking service FlightAware shows that there are 487 flights to, from or within the United States that have been canceled as of noon ET Thursday and another 2,000 delayed. For canceled flights, the problem is clearly focused on United, with 383 of those cancellations. That means 13% of United flights scheduled for Thursday were already canceled, or nearly one out of every seven.

The next greatest number of canceled flights for a US airline Thursday is at JetBlue, which has canceled 21 flights, or 2% of its schedule.

Since Saturday there have been a total of 8,000 US flights canceled and another 42,750 flights delayed according to FlightAware.

Even before Thursday, United was the focus of the problem, with nearly 3,000 flights canceled since Saturday, or 36% of the industry total. United declined to give CNN an estimate of affected passengers, but based on United’s typical passenger volumes from previous earnings reports and the number of canceled flights, there were likely more than 400,000 passengers booked on canceled United flights.

There were likely more than 1 million passengers booked on the 8,000 canceled flights industrywide, based on statistics from aviation analytics firm Cirium and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Finding space on other flights for affected passengers will prove difficult during a busy holiday travel period. Part of the problem is that US airlines still have only about 90% of the capacity that they had at the same time in 2019, ahead of the pandemic, according to Cirium.

But demand to fly is very strong. The Transportation Security Administration has estimated that Friday will bring the highest number of passengers being screened at airport checkpoints since the start of the pandemic.

Even the problems at United early Thursday would mark an improvement from Tuesday and Wednesday, when the airline had to cancel more than 700 flights each day, or more than a quarter of its schedule. But United could see additional delays and cancellations as Thursday progresses.

The FAA warned that a ground stop was likely Thursday afternoon at the two Chicago airports due to severe thunderstorms expected into the area. That would mean that not only are planes on the ground there prevented from taking off, but flights due to land in Chicago would have to delay departures at their origin airport.

Chicago is United’s home base, with one of its largest hubs at O’Hare Airport. Groundstops are also possible for Denver and San Francisco and parts of Texas, also locations of United hubs.

Who is to blame?

But beyond the bad weather there are signs that the problems at United are greatly human-made.

Earlier this week United CEO Scott Kirby blamed much of the problems with the airline’s service meltdown on the Federal Aviation Administration and a lack of adequate staffing at air traffic control centers, particularly in the New York area, where United operates a major hub at Newark airport.

“The FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” said Kirby in an internal company memo to United staff shared with CNN.

He said the FAA reduced arrival rates at Newark by 40% and departure rates by 75% was “almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA.”

“It led to massive delays, cancellations, diversions, as well as crews and aircraft out of position,” he said.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the FAA, pushed back on that criticism of his agency Wednesday evening when appearing on CNN Primetime.

“Look, United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through. They’ve really been struggling this week, even relative to other US airlines,” he told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. While he agreed there needs to be more air traffic controllers, he said “I want to be very clear, air traffic control issues are not the number one issue causing cancellations and delays. They’re not even the number two issue. All the data, including industry’s own data is very clear on that.”

And United management’s handling of the service meltdown was also attacked by the two major unions representing its pilots and flight attendants.

“United’s travel disruptions this week stem from one source; company senior management’s inadequate planning an insufficient investment in the airline infrastructure,” said Captain Garth Thompson, head of the Air Line Pilots Association unit at United.

“Our pilots agree with our passengers that this lack of foresight and disregard of warning signs is unacceptable. It’s time for United leadership to change their thinking and invest in its labor, staff support, and facilities with updated contracts instead of ensuring our CEO has the highest salary,” he said.

United did not have an immediate response to the comments from Buttigieg or the pilots union.

Frustration is running deep not just for passengers but also for crew members, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told CNN Wednesday.

“This has been a hellish four days for the flight attendants who have been stranded unable to get through to crew scheduling – in one case on hold for 15 hours,” she said.

She said that while weather and an understaffed FAA have made the situation worse, that United management also is largely to blame for the problems.

“United could have planned for over a year to avoid this chaos that we’re seeing right now,” she said. “To say that United had nothing to do with this is absurd.”

Both the pilots and flight attendants unions are in prolonged negotiations with United seeking their first raises since before the pandemic.

“United Airlines management is solving these meltdowns about as fast as they negotiate contracts: 5 years and counting!” tweeted the pilots union earlier this week.

This will be a costly meltdown for United, although it has yet to give an estimated cost. Southwest Airlines said its own similar service meltdown during the December holiday period cost it more than $1 billion, including lost future bookings. But Southwest’s problems resulted in far more flights being canceled, about 16,700. And Southwest announced a more generous compensation plan for affected customers than anything United has announced to date.

United did reach an agreement with the flight attendants union to pay triple their normal pay for any additional flights that members pick up between June 27 and July 6, in an attempt to get the staffing they need. It has yet to reach an agreement with the pilots, according to the airline.

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