Why have so many flights been delayed recently?

During the 2022 holiday season an abnormal amount of flights were canceled or delayed for long periods of time. Many of these flights were Southwest flights, which left many wondering, what is the reason for these delays? 

In preparation for the holiday season the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) announced that it would cut the enrollment cost of TSA Pre-Check which allows customers to have access to faster security lines. This caused both regular security and the TSA pre-check security lines to be long.

Southwest also blamed a dangerous winter storm that swept through the US and Canada for the cancellations.

But there was more than just the storm, other factors included staffing shortages and a breakdown of the airline’s system for how it designs its routes. On Monday, December 26th, Southwest canceled 70% of it’s flights which was more than 2,800 flights.

The Federal Aviation Administration strictly regulates when the flight crews can work which made the manual scheduling much more difficult for Southwest. This caused Southwest to end up with flight crews and planes that were ready but their system could not handle matching the planes to flight crews quickly and accurately

Southwest uses a technology called SkySolver which assigns crew to flights using an intricate mathematical system. This system worked when the airline was much smaller, but now as Southwest is a much bigger airline, this outdated technology could not keep up when so many flights were delayed because of weather and staffing shortages. In addition to this, Southwest has no access to inputting their whereabouts into the system. Which means that a call has to be made between the crew and crew scheduler to share information. So then Southwest had to reset the system which caused mass cancellations.

Staff shortages only added to the problem, with Southwest Airlines declaring a company state-of-emergency in Denver. Previously Southwest had been relying on employees working overtime to staff operations. 

A union that represents the ground workers at Southwest said that some employees had worked up to 18-hour long days during the holiday season and some had experienced frostbite.

Southwest then sent a message out to its Denver ramp agents on Dec. 1, threatening termination if they did not comply with the company’s operational emergency rules. These included rejecting any requests for personal absence, working mandatory overtime and a doctor’s note if employees report illness. 

The federal government including the transportation department is currently investigating Southwest’s failure. Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation said that if there is evidence of Southwest failing to meet its legal obligations then they will be fined. And that the DOT will be investigating more closely into the consistent Customer service problems with the airline.

It wasn’t just Southwest either, many other airlines such as Delta, United Airlines, Jet Blue & American Airlines canceled or delayed a large number of their flights. Over 10,000 flights were delayed by U.S. airlines on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Major hubs such as JFK airport in New York had many flights delayed because of high wind speeds in the area which set off a chain reaction. And at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York, flights were shut down entirely on Saturday, December 24th because of high winds and snow.

In some places temperature had dropped so low that the planes couldn’t fly after their equipment and infrastructure were impacted.

Freshman Archita Srinivasan said that her flight from New York to RDU was delayed. She was flying American Airlines and her flight was originally supposed to be at 7pm but it was then delayed until 6am.

And, more recently flights came to a standstill again after the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to halt all flights domestically as it suffered a computer outage on Wednesday January 11th. The FAA said that the problem appeared to be with the Notice to Air Missions system (NOTAM), which sends pilots vital information they need to fly. Later they announced that the stoppage occurred because of a corrupted and damaged database file in the system. On Wednesday, over 1,300 flights were canceled and 10,000 flights were delayed.

It seems as if canceled and delayed flights are becoming the new norm, as staff shortages, adverse weather and other malfunctions become more common.