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Air Travel Delays and Cancellations: What To Expect This Summer and How To Prepare for Your Flight

by Mia Taylor
Last updated: 8:45 AM ET, Sun May 21, 2023

Note to summer travelers everywhere: The post-pandemic surge in appetite for travel continues and will remain firmly in place throughout the sun-soaked months ahead.

That’s the intel from more than a few travel industry insiders as Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer approaches.

“With daily TSA throughput numbers on many days matching or surpassing 2019 levels, suffice it to say we’re expecting a busy summer travel season,” says Travelzoo’s Senior Editor Gabe Saglie, one of many experts predicting a brisk few months ahead and a summer season that may be impacted by more than a few flight delays and cancellations.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects summer air travel to surpass pre-pandemic levels. The agency is already screening 2 million passengers every day, and those numbers are expected to tick steadily upward in the coming months.

As traveler volume grows, there continues to be a serious shortage of air traffic controllers around the country, especially in New York. Certified professional controller staff is at about 80 percent of capacity nationally, while staffing at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (N90) is at just 54 percent of its goal, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

This staffing shortfall was one of many issues raised by the U.S. Travel Association recently during a call with the media. The trade organization told reporters that it too is expecting a record-breaking season ahead, but one that’s likely to be fraught with challenges thanks to years of under-investment in the FAA.

Passenger checking the flight schedule

Passenger checking the flight schedule. (photo via Tzido / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

“This summer’s travel demand will be as strong as we have seen since before the pandemic,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said during the call with reporters, which took place in late April. “That type of demand on a system that is understaffed and underfunded is likely to create frustrations among travelers.”

So how should the traveling public prepare for flying this summer and minimize the possibility of being impacted by cancellations and delays?

Here’s what travel industry experts advise.

Fly non-stop when possible

While non-stop flights aren’t as common as they once were and often can be more expensive, if avoiding the hassle of cancelations and delays is your primary goal, these types of flights may be worth the extra money. “Every leg you add (to your flight schedule) enhances the chances of a delay,” says Saglie.

Go early

Sure, you may not be a morning person, but if it makes the difference between your vacation getting underway smoothly or starting with chaos, try a change of habit and book an extra early flight.

“Morning flights have a 25 percentage point higher on-time arrival rate versus an afternoon or evening flight,” says Katy Nastro, travel expert and spokesperson for Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Your plane is already at the gate and so it’s not subject to delays due to weather or other issues coming from somewhere else.” 

Be weather aware

Weather is the biggest wild card when it comes to delays and cancelations. If you see bad weather potentially affecting your flight, try to act proactively and change your travel day or even the city you’re flight is connecting through, suggests Saglie.

“Some hub cities are more vulnerable to stormy summer weather than others,” Saglie explains.

Passenger at airport in Beijing, China.

Passenger at airport (Photo Credit: 06photo / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Also, if the airline offers a waiver ahead of your flight, due to weather concerns, take them up on it. “Lock in a dependable alternative or you might be faced with a last-minute cancellation and limited immediate options to accommodate you,” he adds.

Download the airline’s app in advance

As you prepare to head to the airport, or better yet, in the days leading up to your departure, be sure to download the airline’s app on your phone. It can provide invaluable information in a pinch, including amid any delays or cancellations.

“Most carriers have built a lot of functionality into their mobile apps and passengers can seek self-service for many issues, rather than standing in a line,” says Jonathan Kletzel, airline and travel practice leader for PwC.

Know your rights

Hopefully, by now we’ve all become more aware of our rights when it comes to flying. Among the key points to know is that getting involuntarily bumped from a flight means you’re owed monetary compensation. And cancellations or severe delays entitle you to a refund, says Saglie.

“At the end of the day, though, you want to get to your vacation, so keep receipts, take pictures, and follow up with the airline in a timely fashion if delays or cancellations throw a curve ball in your travel plans,” he says.

Get travel insurance with flight delay coverage

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, anyone boarding a plane this summer should be prepared for potential delays. And travelers in the New York area may be especially impacted due to the excessive shortage of air traffic controllers, says Daniel Durazo, director of external communications at Allianz Partners USA.

“The best way to plan for a long delay is to consider purchasing travel insurance with trip delay coverage,” suggests Durazo. “The right travel insurance policy can reimburse you for the cost of the additional meals, transportation, and lodging that you may have to pay for if you’re significantly delayed.”

“Feeding the kids at the airport can be an expensive adventure, but travel delay coverage can cover these costs during a long delay, and also cover cab rides and hotel rooms,” adds Durazo.

But be aware, travel delay coverage comes with terms and conditions surrounding how long you need to be delayed before it actually kicks in. This type of coverage also includes a per day, and per person, coverage maximum, so read your policy to understand what’s actually covered. 

Go in with a backup plan

More than a few travelers learned this particular reality over the past year or more: Sometimes you’ll have to pivot on a moment’s notice when travel is derailed. Given this reality, it’s best to head to your flight with a backup plan, says Saglie.

“Know how long the drive is. And is there any chance you could take a train if need be? Odds are you won’t need it, but a backup plan can give you a bit more peace of mind,” Saglie explains.

It’s not all bad news

Sure there may be challenges ahead this summer but don’t despair. Airlines have anticipated many of the potential challenges and are preparing accordingly, even making necessary adjustments now.

“Delays and cancelations will likely rear their head all over again this summer, as staffing across the board—from airline to airports to the FAA—continues to ramp back up. But the airlines should be better equipped to deal with issues now than in the summer of 2022,” says Saglie. “Some airlines have already proactively trimmed their summer schedules as a way to stave off potential delays and cancelations.”

Saglie is not alone in his sentiments on this front.

“I would approach this summer travel season with cautious optimism. Yes, it will be busy, but as travel fully re-normalizes, we always come to expect a peak season (like the summer months) to bring crowded airports and full flights,” says Nastro.

But should we go into the summer months dreading that we will encounter delays and cancellations mirroring those messy days of last summer?

“Not necessarily,” Nastro adds. “Airlines have adjusted their summer schedules to be more realistic, as in, scaled back to the point they can realistically deliver on flights and the staff to accommodate.”

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