Airlines, FAA, Weather? Data Shows Fault for Delayed, Canceled Flights.

2023 data is through February
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Federal data shows that issues within the control of airlines have consistently been the biggest cause of delayed flights and a growing share of cancellations since the beginning of the pandemic.

President Biden took aim at those disrupted flights Monday, calling on airlines to provide compensation to stranded and late travelers when carriers are responsible for problems.

“We know how frustrating delays, cancellations and rebookings are for travelers,” Biden said at the White House.

In response, Airlines for America, a trade group for major carriers, said its members have no incentive to cancel or delay flights. The organization released charts seeking to explain the reasons for problems, highlighting the role played by weather and issues at air-traffic-control facilities run by the Federal Aviation Administration.

On Tuesday, the FAA released its own charts – a sign that this summer could again see finger-pointing between the government and the industry. It sought to explain how delays chalked up to problems within the nation’s airspace are largely due to weather. The agency said it plans to regularly update the figures in the coming months.

So what does the data show? Airlines are required to tell the Transportation Department why flights were delayed or canceled. The figures have been published through February, showing a few clear trends as the industry has recovered from the hammer blow delivered by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

The biggest cause of canceled flights is indeed weather, according to the data. But in 2021 and 2022, issues within the airlines’ control were a much greater share of the reason flights were canceled, jumping from about 25 percent to almost 40 percent. At the same time, the share of canceled flights attributed to airspace issues – some of which are the FAA’s responsibility – has declined.

The federal data also shows that the overall rate of flight cancellations was slightly higher in 2021 and 2022 than in the two years before the pandemic, particularly last summer. The winter of 2021 saw a major spike as the omicron variant swept through airline workforces, while a meltdown at Southwest Airlines over the past Christmas and New Year’s period caused another spike.

“Carriers have taken responsibility for challenges within their control and continue working diligently to improve operational reliability,” Airlines for America said in a statement Monday.

As the summer approaches, the industry has been pushing to recruit new workers after many left during the pandemic. It has also been working with the FAA to slim schedules in the Northeast, where the agency has warned of a staffing shortage at a key New York facility. The group pointed to data indicating that airlines’ reliability so far this year is increasing.

When it comes to flight delays, data shows similar trends. Issues within airlines’ control have become the biggest source of delays in the wake of the pandemic, while the effect of airspace issues has declined. The government also breaks out when a late-arriving aircraft on a previous flight is the cause for a delay, and says airlines bear the responsibility in many of those cases, too.

It will be up to the Transportation Department to write rules governing the compensation that Biden called for Monday. One of the issues the department said it will tackle is defining what qualifies as a delay or cancellation within an airline’s control, and the requirements are likely to apply only to flights delayed by several hours.

That means the current data isn’t an exact guide for how often passengers could expect to be compensated. But based on the available numbers, travelers are right in many cases to blame their woes on the airlines.

2023 data is through February
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics