Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg summoned the airlines to a meeting saying what basically every American has been thinking this summer… “stop your operations from sucking.” It is a good sentiment, and the airlines publicly said conversations were constructive… though they immediately followed that up by canceling Buttigieg’s flight to New York. Brilliance in action. There is clearly a broad problem, but finding a solution? That’s not so simple.
CNBC reports that Buttigieg wanted to make sure that the awful operations that ruined traveler plans on Memorial Day don’t repeat themselves over the 4th of July. I’d like that too, so would the airlines, and so would everyone else. But unless he has a direct line to the weather gods, there’s no way to guarantee that. Still, he’s made his position fairly clear: make sure the weekend goes smoothly or he will consider action against them.
The airlines have been running miserable operations as they come out of COVID. We all know that. But what happened on Memorial Day was more than that, it was bad weather on the Friday before the start of the holiday weekend that really pushed everything over the edge. Take a look at performance since May 1 via masFlight data for the top 10 US airlines.
Completion and On-Time Performance By Date – Top 10 US Airlines
The first bar highlighted in red is that Friday before Memorial Day. Performance was not good. But then look as the number of flights has continued to grow each day as we get into peak season. June 9 had 1.5 percent more flights operating than on May 27, but completion factor was 4 points higher at an acceptable-but-not-stellar rate of 98.4 percent. Arrivals within 14 minutes were nearly 3 points higher.
Then you can look at the last red bar there as well. That was last Thursday when it seems like every airport on the entire east coast had a ground delay program in place due to weather. It was bad, and performance absolutely tanked. It was downright bad through the weekend as they tried to recover… simply adding fuel to the fire. But, what is the solution?
There is great variability in what airlines can operate depending upon external conditions on any given day. So how should the airlines be scheduling? You could say that airlines should schedule assuming good weather and then use all the tools they have to make things work as best they can when bad weather hits. It will be bad on those days. Or you could say airlines should schedule for the worst case scenario. Operations will be great, but there will be a lot fewer flights. You think fares have gone up a lot now… just wait until you have to trim more capacity out of the system.
The feds are presumably torn on this as well. After all, they don’t want to force airlines to cut back and then let them point fingers at the feds for all those high fares. It’s not a great look for any administration. So what is the right answer? There isn’t one. Buttigieg can call the airlines out and make it look like the feds are doing something, but I would imagine that it won’t actually change anything. It’ll just make it look like the feds are on the case. Optics are everything.
Buttigieg has indicated at least some understanding of the situation, and he says that airlines should at least be able to hire more customer service people to help rebook travelers when things go wrong. That may be true, but what are they rebooking them on if flights are full on that airline? Or what if they just don’t have more flights, as if often the case with the Ultra Low Cost Carriers?
I still like the idea of mandated reaccommodation policy that would require all airlines to put passengers on other airlines at predetermined rates. In other words, bring back Rule 240 and expand it to apply to all delays and cancellations including those outside of airline control. But I don’t imagine that’s the kind of “action” that Buttigieg is talking about taking.
More likely, the airlines will run a poor operation when the weather is bad, they’ll end up being fined, they’ll negotiate it down to something smaller, and then they’ll go back to doing everything the way they always do.