Mariela Garcia and her family are taking a trip to Mexico to celebrate her daughter's birthday over the Fourth of July weekend but found out nearly a week in advance that her departing flight was canceled.
Garcia, who is 44 and lives in Lakewood, California, said her family learned of the cancellation Sunday night.
"We were like, 'What do we do?'" she said.
She originally booked on a direct Alaska Airlines flight, but she was rebooked on American Airlines. Garcia's now flying out earlier in the morning, with a layover in Phoenix. Her extended family – and her oldest daughter – who were originally on the same flight but booked their reservation separately are now flying on United Airlines.
Garcia's experience is an increasingly common one this summer. From flight delays and outright cancellations to crowded airports and schedule changes, the air transportation system is struggling to get back to normal after the pandemic-era slump.
Don't blame the ones who showed up: Pilot shortage driving airline reliability struggles this summer
The substitute teacher and personal finance coach said the trip to Cancún and Playa del Carmen is her first on a plane since the pandemic.
"I feel I waited a long time just to be ready to take a trip, and I thought things would go smoother, but I guess now there's other issues," she said, citing the pilot shortage.
Demand for flights is up, and airlines are stretched thin trying to get people where they want to go. For travelers, it's more important than ever to be patient and ready for changes, especially heading into a holiday weekend that's sure to bring even bigger crowds to the airports than we've seen already.
What's going on in the airports today?
Just over 400 U.S. flights had been canceled and nearly 1,700 more were delayed by early Thursday afternoon, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight status in real time. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines had the most cancellations as of 1:15 p.m. ET: about 125 on American and close to 85 on Delta, not including flights operated by their regional affiliates.
What's causing the problems?
In the U.S., the biggest problem this summer has been a shortage of pilots.
Airlines don't have enough people on staff to fly all the flights they scheduled in many cases, and with rosters stretched thin, it's taking extra time for carriers to recover when something goes wrong.
Pilot shortage: Airlines struggle with reliability this summer
“We need more pilots to enter into the profession as an industry, as a country, that’s important. And until we address certain things to enable that to happen, this is going to become increasingly acute,” Andrew Levy, CEO of ultra-low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines told USA TODAY. “The result is going to be less air service in this country and people will pay higher fares.”
On top of that, airlines say, the Federal Aviation Administration is struggling with staffing at some of its air traffic control centers, which can lead flight departures to be pushed back until the controllers have the bandwidth to handle more incoming planes.
"The answer of what the next few months are going to look like were answered three months ago in terms of staffing and schedules," said Courtney Miller, Founder of Visual Approach Analytics.
Delta Air Lines went as far as issuing a travel waiver letting customers rebook their July Fourth trip without paying change fees or fare differences. The waiver is good through July 8.
Tips for travelers
Joshua Bush, CEO of travel agency Avenue Two Travel, said travelers should expect delays and long lines, particularly at security and check-in. But they can take steps to minimize disruptions.
► For those looking at last-minute flights or booking new ones, consider flying nonstop when possible as Bush said it "removes the variables of where things can go wrong," and flying from a major airport or hub where there are more opportunities for rerouting.
► He also recommended downloading your airline's app so you will get notifications about changes more quickly, and forgoing checked luggage in favor of carry-ons. Not only does it reduce the chance of your luggage getting lost, Bush said, but you can more easily look into flying standby on another flight.
► If you are at the airport when your flight is canceled, Bush advised travelers to go see the gate agent or customer service as soon as possible, something he acknowledges "is far easier said than done" in busy airports. You can also call by phone, and he said many airline apps have a chat feature.
"You've got at least three different options of being able to try to solve the same problem," he said.
► Travel insurance can be helpful, too. Some insurers offer trip interruption, delay, and cancellation options, and will reimburse passengers whose bags are lost so they can buy clothing, or claim money to pay for a hotel or buy food in the airport.
"Each policy is different, so go ahead and definitely look at them," he said.
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While passengers dealing with delays or cancellations are likely to be frustrated, Bush also urged patience when dealing with gate agents or other representatives. "If they've had 100 people scream and yell at them and you're the one person that's nice, patient and kind with them, they're going to try that much harder to get you where you need to go," he said.
If your flight is canceled and you decide against rebooking, the airline has to refund any unused part of your ticket in cash. That is true even if your fare is nonrefundable. If you experience a major delay, you may also be entitled to compensation or a refund.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: July 4 air travel could be messy this year: Pilot shortage persists