Buttigieg meets with airline executives amid fresh round of delays

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
Passengers walk through Reagan National Airport in April.

Travelers at airports across the United States endured flight troubles Thursday — the same day Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg held a virtual meeting with airline executives, pressing them on plans for heading off disruptions this summer.

More than 1,700 flights into, within or out of the country were canceled and more than 8,700 — about 31 percent — were delayed with serious issues at airports in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. The average length of the delay Thursday was 81 minutes.

On Friday, the system appeared to be bouncing back. Still, as of Friday afternoon, FlightAware reported that nearly 3,200 delays of flights within, to or out of the U.S. were delayed, while more than 1,200 had been canceled.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday issued ground stops and ground delays in response to weather problems and, in some cases, traffic constraints caused by a shortage of gates at airports, including at Charlotte-Douglas International, an American Airlines hub. Such measures are designed to ensure airports don’t become congested.

In a virtual meeting late Thursday, Buttigieg met with chief executives from several major U.S. carriers and pressed them on what they were doing to prevent a repeat of the cancellations and delays that left thousands stranded over Memorial Day weekend, when more than 2,700 flights nationwide were canceled.

In an NBC News interview, Buttigieg said with so much pent-up demand for travel, the public is depending on airlines to get travelers where they need to go.

“I let them know this is a moment when we are really counting on them to deliver reliably for the traveling public,” he said.

In a statement, Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, which represents large U.S. carriers, said airlines appreciated the opportunity to meet with Buttigieg.

“U. S. airlines always strive to provide a safe and seamless journey, and recognize the importance of continued partnership between our industry and the federal government to ensure aviation remains the safest mode of transportation in the world,” Calio said.

At Reagan National Airport in the Washington, D.C. region on Thursday, more than 200 flights — roughly 43 percent of scheduled departures — were delayed, and 79, or 16 percent, were canceled. At Dulles International Airport, only 4 percent of scheduled departures were canceled, but 30 percent of flights were delayed. At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, 37 percent of flights were delayed Thursday, according to FlightAware.

Travelers also encountered widespread delays and cancellations at airports in Charlotte, Boston and all three New York-area airports. At Philadelphia International Airport, half of flights scheduled to depart on Thursday were delayed.

Among the carriers hit hardest was JetBlue Airways, which delayed more than 550 flights, roughly 57 percent of those scheduled, according to FlightAware. But other carriers, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, also were affected, as were regional carriers, including Republic Airways, PSA Airlines and Endeavor Air.

Despite surging demand, airlines have cut back their summer schedules while aiming to avoid the high-profile meltdowns that made headlines last year and drew the attention of lawmakers. Many are still struggling to hire enough workers to replace the estimated 50,000 that left the industry during the pandemic. Carriers, in particular, have been struggling to find enough pilots amid a nationwide shortage. Delays and cancellations over the Memorial Day weekend drew new scrutiny as the industry prepares for a surge in demand for the July 4.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Airlines for America’s Calio and Buttigieg, raising concerns about carriers’ performance during Memorial Day. Markey on Thursday reiterated the need for carriers to be held accountable.

In a response, Calio said carriers recognize the importance of working to “continually improve customer experience and reliability.”