U.S. Airlines Blamed for Increased Flight Cancellations

U.S. Airlines Blamed for More Flight Cancellations


Airlines were at fault for more of the increased U.S. flight cancellations in 2021, compared to pre-pandemic flight cancellations, per a just released report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). While weather was the biggest cause of cancellations in 2018-2019, the percentage of airline-caused cancellations, for reasons such as lack of flight crew or maintenance, began increasing in early 2021. And from October through December 2021, airlines caused 60% or more of all flight cancellations — higher that at any time in 2018 or 2019.


Similarly, all the U.S. airlines analyzed in the report were responsible for a higher percentage of their cancelled flights in the second half of 2021 compared to the second half of 2021. The sharp increase in the share of cancellations blamed on the airline in 2021 was especially pronounced at Allegiant (>80%), Spirit (~80%), and JetBlue (>60%), but there were also significant increases in cancellations due to airline fault at United (from ~10% in 2019 to ~40% in 2021); Delta (from ~20% in 2019 to almost 50% in 2021) and American Airlines (~25% in 2019 to ~45% in 2021).


The report also highlighted the longer recovery times from cancellation events. In the second half of 2021, on average it took 1.9 days for an airline to recover from a sustained cancellation event. By contrast, in both the second halves of 2018 and 2019, it took airlines roughly 1.5 days on average to recover. In the first 4 months of 2022, it took airlines even longer to recover from these events, averaging nearly 3 days per event compared to 1.6 days and 1.3 days in the first 4
months of 2019 and 2018, respectively.


Although airlines took $54 billion in taxpayer money for the Payroll Support Program (PSP) with the promise to not to furlough or fire employees, the terms of the funds did not prevent airlines from providing incentives for pilots and staff to take early retirement, and many did so. And while airlines have been ramping up hiring and training new pilots, many of the newer and more inexperienced staff aren't as efficient as the experienced hires incentivized to take voluntary severance or early retirement.

The GAO report originally recommended using system-wide data to identity cases of potential unrealistic scheduling for investigation, although withdrew this recommendation after the Department of Transportation provided additional data demonstrating that the DoT already does this and has increased its oversight of airlines' scheduling over the time the report was being worked on.

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