The feared repeat of last year's summer travel woes began to materialize this week, with thousands of flights delayed or canceled amid inclement weather and staffing shortages.
The troubles began last weekend, with nearly 2,000 U.S. flights canceled, according to FlightAware. Disruptions continued into Monday, when more than 11,000 U.S. flights were delayed or canceled. At least 7,300 were affected Tuesday.
By Wednesday, the delays and cancellations had begun to level off to about 2,000 U.S. flights, according to FlightAware.
The delays come as the U.S. faces an ongoing shortage of air traffic controllers. It's an issue that United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby highlighted in a letter to employees Monday, attributing the shortage to potentially more headaches in the coming weeks.
“I’m ... frustrated that the FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” Kirby said, adding that he estimated more than 150,000 United customers had experienced disruptions “because of FAA staffing issues and their ability to manage traffic.”
A Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson said, “We will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem.”
The shortages are unlikely to be resolved quickly, Zach Griff at The Points Guy travel website said. Staffing problems are also likely to be compounded by a number of issues.
"When thunderstorms hit, it's up to controllers to recalibrate the air network, and it’s taking longer because they're understaffed," Griff said. "And some of that staff are not the experienced types who’ve been through this before. This is not something that can be solved overnight."
Griff said it is somewhat unusual for storm activity to linger in the way it has in recent days over the Northeast, and current weather forecasts suggest more storms for the area are likely this weekend. The situation could also be compounded by ongoing visibility issues caused by smoke emanating from wildfires in Canada.
The travel year had started off relatively smoothly until the most recent troubles, FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs said. But she said she'd be surprised if the summer travel blues did not linger, especially in the Northeast, where air traffic controller shortages are most acute.
"It would be a pleasant surprise if we don’t continue to see bottleneck traffic," she said.
Tips for rebooking a flight
To avoid being trapped in an endless line to rebook at your airline’s terminal, get on the internet immediately and start looking for alternative forms of travel. Experts say Google’s flight search option is the best bet for finding the most up-to-date choices when it comes to getting a new flight, which are also searchable by a number of criteria, including price.
If you’re strapped for cash and are looking to rebook, you’ll still want to attempt to call the airline before or as you wait in line with an in-person rebooking agent. Of note: Not all major airlines have rebooking agreements with other carriers. The ones that do are: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United. That ones that do not are: Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest and Spirit.
Unfortunately, you have few rights if your flight is delayed or canceled for reasons outside of an airline’s control
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation website, only factors like maintenance or crew problems, cabin cleaning, baggage loading, and fueling count as within an airline’s control.
If your flight was delayed for longer than three hours, or canceled for any of those reasons and it takes longer than three hours to rebook your travel, you are entitled to a meal or meal cash/voucher.
For an overnight delay or overnight cancellation, you are entitled to complimentary hotel accommodations and complimentary ground transport to and from a hotel. Overnight hotel accommodations and travel to and from a hotel do not apply to Frontier Airlines. Click here for more information.
If your flight is delayed for any other reason, like weather, you are not entitled to any compensation or refund.
What your rights are if your flight was significantly delayed or canceled
In this situation, you are only entitled to a refund if you don’t take an offer to be rebooked on another flight. That also means you don’t have to accept an airline’s offer of a voucher.
According to the Transportation Department: “If an airline cancels a passenger’s flight or makes a significant change in the flight, regardless of the reason, airlines are required to provide a prompt refund to a ticketed passenger, including those with non-refundable tickets, should the passenger choose not to accept the alternative offered, such as rebooking on another flight.”