Delays, cancelations and $10,000 oversold flight offers: Chaos as 4 July travel sets pandemic air travel records

Travelers headed off for the 4 July weekend experienced delays, overnight stays in airports and even $10,000 offers to give up seats on oversold flights, as the US braces for its busiest Independence Day holiday since before the pandemic.

On Friday, nearly 8,000 flights were delayed in the US, with the worst breakdowns at New York City-area airports.

Forty-five per cent of flights were delayed out of LaGuardia, while 44 per cent of flights were delayed at the John F Kennedy and Newark airpots, according to data from Flight Aware.

Their analysis found that JetBlue and Allegiant Air were the worst carriers for delays heading into the long weekend, each delaying about 45 per cent of flights.

In some places, passengers were offered eye-popping amounts to get off oversold flights. Inc. magazine tech columnist Jason Aten reported that passengers were offered $10,000 to yield their spot on an oversold route between Michigan and Minnesota.

Others were pictured sleeping in airports overnight as delays compounded.

Staffing shortages and rebounding travel demand are among the reasons causing delays, according to travel analysts, and things could be getting even worse as the weekend continues. Aviation officials have warned that thunderstorms could prompt continued delays over eastern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Nearly 2.5 million US travelers passed through airports on Friday, according to the Transportation Security Administration, roughly three times the number that did so during the same period in 2020. Even as the pandemic rages, airpots are seeing similar numbers of summer travelers as they did in 2019, according to the TSA.

There were already warning signs before the 4 July rush began.

On Thursday, Delta Airlines pilots picketed outside of airports, saying they were frustrated with the pace of contract negotiations and having to work high rates of overtime.

During the Memorial Day and Juneteenth holiday weekends, more than 3,000 flights were canceled and more than 19,000 were delayed.

"There’s no getting around the fact that this is going to be a summer of travel delays, cancelations, and frustrations," Sebastian Modak, editor-at-large of Lonely Planet, told NPR.

Major carriers, facing staffing shortages, retirements, and other issues, have attempted to cut back on summer schedules and pack planes to avoid further issues.

The travel chaos is prompting some to question whether Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who had no previous mass transit experience before being nominated to the Biden Administration, is up to the job. Equally sharp criticisms are heading towards airlines, which received $54bn in pandemic relief funds, in part to keep staff and avoid widespread delays.

"During the pandemic, when air travel came to a near halt, U.S. taxpayers came to the rescue and gave $54 billion to the airline industry," Sen Bernie Sanders wrote to Mr Buttigieg in a letter on Wednesday. "The top eight airlines alone received nearly $50 billion in taxpayer assistance from the federal government. Given all of the generous taxpayer support that has been provided to the airline industry, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that passengers and crew members are treated with respect, not contempt.”

Mr Sanders has argued that the Department of Transportation should fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for every flight cancelation they know can’t be fully staffed and $15,000 per passenger for every extended delay on domestic and international flights.

On Thursday, Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote a letter apologising to customers.

“We’ve spent years establishing Delta as the industry leader in reliability, and though the majority of our flights continue to operate on time, this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable,” the letter reads.