Report: When flight cancellations piled up in late 2021, the airlines were mainly at fault

U.S. flight cancellations during the tail end of the pandemic were more often the airlines’ fault than attributable to uncontrollable circumstances such as weather.

That was one takeaway from a new issued report by the U.S. Government General Accountability Office (GAO).

“From October through December 2021, airlines caused 60% or more of flight cancellations each month, exceeding any point reached in 2018 and 2019,” notes the study, which the GAO undertook at the behest of Congress. “Airlines were again the leading cause of flight cancellations in April 2022.”

The report notes that flight cancellations during the final six months of 2021 were up 16% compared to the last half of 2019, and cancellation rates were up at seven of the 10 largest U.S. airlines. Cancellation numbers remained high during the first four months of 2022, totaling nearly 82,000, compared to 56,000 and 67,000, respectively, during those four months in 2018 and 2019. 

Though the high incidences of cancellations have been well documented, the GAO said that the causes of cancellations in late 2021 shifted proportionately toward airline culpability. In 2018 and 2019, weather was the leading cause of cancellations. But the causes began to shift in February 2021, as airlines found themselves unprepared for the sudden burst in flying demand.

During the second half of 2021, all of the largest 10 U.S. airlines attributed a higher percentage of cancellations to causes under their control than they did in 2019. For some airlines, including JetBlue, United and Allegiant, that percentage increased by a factor of several times. 

In interviews with GAO investigators, airlines and other industry stakeholders cited oft-discussed issues such as shortfalls of pilots and other staff as well as training backlogs for the cancellation spikes. Increased reluctance among employees to pick up shifts was another reason cited by both airlines and airline unions. One union said airlines overscheduled flights. 

Airlines responded to the jump in controllable cancellations by ramping up hiring, reducing flight schedules, increasing training capacity and implementing technology improvements, the report said.

Carriers have also been pushed to make changes by more aggressive action by the DOT, the GAO concluded. The report notes that as of March the department was investigating four U.S. airlines for potential unrealistic scheduling, including Southwest, which canceled 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 of last year in the wake of a major winter storm.

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