Smoke, More Storms Plus a Double Holiday: Get Ready for Air Chaos this Long Weekend

Total delays within, into, or out of the United States on 29JUN totalled 8,177. (File photo)

Air travellers should be bracing themselves for a tumultuous long weekend as disruptions continued to plague aviation across North America heading into a holiday in both Canada and the U.S. that's expected to see more pax at airports than since the start of the pandemic.  And more storms are on their way.

As Open Jaw reported, hundreds of thousands of people have had travel plans thrown up in the air after a wave of storms raked the United States earlier in the week. According to FlightAware, at least 7,500 flights within, into, or out of the United States were delayed each day from Monday through Thursday, with Tuesday seeing a total of 2,205 flights cancelled in the U.S. alone.

Despite better weather along much of the East Coast, where the majority of the disruptions occurred, the U.S. air travel system has been unable to recover quickly because it doesn’t have enough workers to deal with the disruptions or get the backlog cleared quickly.

According to data from Cirium, domestic U.S. airline capacity is still down 10 per cent in the current quarter compared to the same period pre-pandemic. When problems occur, finding seats for passengers whose flights have been cancelled becomes a problem, particularly at busy travel periods.


Air travel is also contending with the smoke blanketing cities in Canada and the U.S. as a result of wildfires in multiple locations.

Over 120 million Americans - and millions of Canadians - are currently under smoke alerts which can lead to low visibility, according to reports. If visibility is reduced enough, air traffic control towers are forced to allow more space between aircraft, leading to delays.

On Wednesday, Toronto Pearson International Airport reported delays of more than an hour due to poor visibility.

Double Trouble

But air traffic is expected to soar this double holiday weekend.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has estimated that Friday, the start of both the Canada Day and Fourth of July holiday weekend, will bring the highest number of passengers being screened at airport checkpoints since the start of the pandemic.

As of 9:15 am EDT on 30JUN, cancellations and delays within, into, or out of the United States totalled 258 and 1,026, respectively.

While multiple airlines have been experiencing delays and cancellations, in the States, passengers on United have been the most affected, with the airline seeing over 2,000 cancellations and over 40,000 of its flights experiencing delays. On Thursday, 18 per cent of the airline's schedule was cancelled and 47 per cent was delayed.

A perfect storm - literally and figuratively

Severe storms are expected to return along the East Coast Friday and Saturday, with the West also facing unstable weather in the coming days.

Along with storms and big crowds, a technology issue could add to travellers' difficulties, reports CP24. Authorities warn that some airline planes may not be able to fly in bad weather starting Saturday due to potential interference from new 5G wireless service.

Most major airlines, such as American, United, Southwest, Alaska, and Frontier, have updated their planes with new devices called radio altimeters to avoid disruptions caused by 5G. However, Delta Air Lines reportedly still has around 190 planes out of their fleet of over 900 that haven't been updated due to a shortage of altimeters.

Blame game

Beyond the bad weather, there are signs that some of the problems United and other airlines face are human-made.

Earlier this week, United's CEO Scott Kirby pointed a finger at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the delays, which started on Saturday 24JUN when air traffic controller staffing problems disrupted numerous flights.

“We estimate that over 150,000 customers on United alone were impacted this weekend because of FAA staffing issues and their ability to manage traffic,” said Kirby in an internal company memo to United staff, shared with CNN.

As Open Jaw reported, a recent U.S. federal government audit revealed that key U.S. air traffic control centres are experiencing staffing shortages. Twenty of the 26 critical facilities in the country — or 77 per cent — are staffed below the Federal Aviation Administration’s 85 per cent threshold.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the FAA, pushed back against criticism.

“Look, United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through. They’ve really been struggling this week, even relative to other U.S. airlines,” he told CNN. 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.”

The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents United's cabin crews, said that while weather and an understaffed FAA have made the situation worse, United management also is largely to blame for the problems. The union said United employees were waiting three hours or longer when calling a crew-scheduling centre for assignments because of “limited telephone lines and personnel,” reports CP24.

Busy border expectations

With a long weekend for both Canadians and Americans, this weekend will see plenty of travel. That means people planning on crossing the border by air, land or water may be in for long waits.

To get people moving through lineups and on to their weekend plans, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has said it's prepared with staffing for peak periods and has offered tips and useful links for travellers to use to help ensure a smooth trip.

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