TOver the weekend, thousands of tourists were stuck at airports due to delays and cancellations caused by thunderstorms in Florida. Flighttracker FlightAware reported that over 10,000 U.S. flights had been cancelled or delayed. Another 5,085 were also delayed while 779 were canceled Monday.
“Absolute madness,” one person wrote on Twitter to Southwest Airlines. “Very disappointed,” another wrote to JetBlue Airways. Some passengers claimed that they were frustrated by the long waits on hold at airlines while others waited in line to talk to an agent about rescheduling their flights. Southwest alone cancelled 920 flights on Saturday, while 43% delayed its Saturday flight. JetBlue had 25% cancellations on Sunday. American Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Spirit also reported cancellations and delays similar to JetBlue’s.
Here’s everything that went wrong.
The main causes of disruptions in air travel over the weekend were heavy rain and destructive winds throughout central Florida. At one point in the afternoon, forecasters were tracking a tornado threat in between Jacksonville and Gainesville, prompting air traffic controllers to institute a “flow constrained area” over that part of Florida.
Due to the severe weather, flights were temporarily halted at several state airports. Other flights also had to be diverted away from storms by the Federal Aviation Administration. The weekend’s problems were exacerbated by it being peak spring break travel season, with close to 2.3 million travelers screened at airports on Friday.
“Over the past several days, severe weather in the southeast and multiple air traffic control delay programs have created significant impacts on the industry,” JetBlue said in a statement. The airline claimed the cancellations were necessary to help “reset our operation and safely move our crews and aircraft back in to position.”
In addition to the inclement weather in Florida, the nation’s largest domestic carrier—Southwest—said it also faced “intermittent technology issues” early Saturday morning that impacted its scheduling.
As part of the overnight maintenance, departures were temporarily stopped for this storm. This was to make sure that the backend system it had reset was working properly. Although the maintenance was scheduled, Southwest didn’t specify why or how it led to delays.
However, these technology issues only impacted some of the airline’s earliest flights on Saturday, hours before the storm hit.
There are staff shortages
Alaska Airlines, frequent flyer throughout the Pacific Northwest, appeared to have another problem over the weekend. This was an ongoing staffing crisis and contract negotiations.
Between Friday and Sunday, the airline cancelled nearly 300 flights, which affected more than 37,000 customers. Off-duty pilots also protested in several U.S. towns over stagnant negotiations. The cancellations began the same day the union representing Alaska Airlines pilots organized outside the carrier’s terminals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Anchorage.
The Air Line Pilots Association continues to negotiate for pilots in the area for more flexibility, increased wages and job security. But the union claims its picket lines are not to blame for Alaska Airlines’ cancellations since pilots only organized on Friday, and the airline canceled 161 of its flights on Saturday and Sunday when pilots weren’t demonstrating. Instead, the union claims pilot attrition caused Alaska Airlines’ cancellations. “Alaska Airlines failed to properly plan for increased travel demand and take the steps necessary to ensure it attracted and retained pilots,” the pilots union said in a Friday press release.
Oliver Wyman Consulting projects that the shortage in pilots will exceed 12,000 by 2023 because of an ageing pilot population, strong early retirements and a high number of early retirees. A collection of TikToks virally deleted from February that showed how JetBlue’s cancellation caused people to be stuck in Las Vegas for up to 48 hours raised fears about pilots striking. But, no reports have come out.
“Alongside other carriers, we continue to be impacted by a national pilot shortage and the required training regimen to bring new pilots onboard,” Alaska Airlines acknowledged in a statement Saturday. Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in an email to pilots on Friday that the carrier will offer 150% of their pay to pick up extra flights.
Brett Snyder, author of the Cranky Flier airline industry site, says airports haven’t been this busy since before the pandemic began two years ago, when airlines saw record-low passengers and deep financial losses. With 65% of Americans now being vaccinated for COVID-19 and the increased demand during spring break, airlines have to find ways to rebuild their workforces. In fact, some 400,000 workers have been fired or furloughed over the past two years. “That means they may have less slack than they’d like, and something like the bad weather Florida experienced this weekend can create havoc more easily,” Snyder says.
How to handle a flight cancellation
Travelers should expect more flight cancellations throughout the week, with 304 U.S. airlines cancelling Tuesday’s flights and 29 Wednesday morning flights. Experts advise that passengers should immediately look at their ticket information to determine if the flight was canceled and then review their airline policy.
Airlines are legally obligated to provide a full refund to customers if a flight is significantly delayed and the passenger chooses not to travel, but ultimately it’s up to the airline to determine what constitutes a significant delay. Federal law does not allow passengers to be compensated if they choose to travel on the next flight. However, some airlines will offer refunds for delays that are their fault. Southwest has yet to offer refunds on flights that were delayed due to weekend tech issues.
“If you’re at the airport, get in line to speak with an agent,” Snyder says. Most passengers will be offered a couple of options: a seat on next available flight or their money back. Or travel credit that expires in one calendar year. While passengers may call their airline directly for assistance, Snyder advises that you also tweet the airline. Because of the lengthy wait times and difficulties in dialing international numbers, Snyder strongly recommends this option. Some airlines also provide updates via social media, with alternate options.
But for travelers caught in the wrath of Florida’s weekend storm, experts note that airlines are not obligated to arrange any accommodations, so travelers will have to fend for themselves when it comes to meals and overnight lodging.
The process for those who have booked flights via an online travel agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity can prove more challenging. Customers are advised to contact the agency directly to resolve any issues, and the agency can then request a refund from the airline on the traveler’s behalf.
How does it affect travel season?
Although some airlines are resuming near normal operations, the recent string of flight disruptions isn’t over yet. Spirit Airlines still has 114 flight cancellations on Tuesday. This delay is causing a large backlog in airlines, which can have repercussions that reach airports throughout the nation from Boston to Las Vegas and Dallas.
Experts say that the staffing crisis at Alaska Airlines, and in other industries is likely to continue and cause cancellations and delays. Extreme weather is unpredictable, however. “A flight cancellation is always a possibility for travelers at any time,” Snyder says. “Airlines can never predict the weather well enough to be able to schedule everything perfectly, so things can be derailed.”
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