Thousands of travelers were stranded in airports over the weekend as thunderstorms in Florida curtailed operations and technology issues left one of the largest airlines scrambling to recover during the spring break travel rush. More than 10,000 U.S. flights were canceled or delayed, according to flight tracker FlightAware, with another 5,085 delayed and 779 canceled on Monday.
“Absolute madness,” one person wrote on Twitter to Southwest Airlines. “Very disappointed,” another wrote to JetBlue Airways. Some passengers said they waited on hold with airlines for hours, while others stood in long lines to speak with an agent to get their canceled flights rescheduled. Southwest alone canceled 920 flights between Saturday and Sunday, with 43% of its scheduled Saturday flights delayed. On Sunday, JetBlue canceled 25% of its flights. Alaska Airlines, Frontier, Spirit and American Airlines also reported similar delays and cancellations.
Here’s everything that went wrong.
Heavy rain and damaging winds across central Florida on Saturday were the main cause of air travel disruptions over the weekend. At one point in the afternoon, forecasters were tracking a tornado threat in between Jacksonville and Gainesville, prompting air traffic controllers to institute a “flow constrained area” over that part of Florida.
The Federal Aviation Administration had to briefly halt flights at several airports in the state because of the extreme weather conditions, and other flights had to be rerouted away from the storms. The weekend’s problems were exacerbated by it being peak spring break travel season, with close to 2.3 million travelers screened at airports on Friday.
“Over the past several days, severe weather in the southeast and multiple air traffic control delay programs have created significant impacts on the industry,” JetBlue said in a statement. The airline claimed the cancellations were necessary to help “reset our operation and safely move our crews and aircraft back in to position.”
In addition to the inclement weather in Florida, the nation’s largest domestic carrier—Southwest—said it also faced “intermittent technology issues” early Saturday morning that impacted its scheduling.
The airline briefly paused departures as part of overnight maintenance prior to the storm in order to perform checks on a backend system that it reset. The maintenance was planned, though Southwest did not specify how or why it became an issue that led to delays.
However, these technology issues only impacted some of the airline’s earliest flights on Saturday, hours before the storm hit.
Alaska Airlines, a frequent flyer around the Pacific Northwest, seemed to be dealing with a separate issue over the weekend that led to even more flight cancellations: a staffing shortage and ongoing contract negotiations with its pilots.
The airline canceled nearly 300 flights between Friday and Sunday, affecting more than 37,000 customers, as off-duty pilots picketed in several U.S. cities over stalled negotiations. The cancellations began the same day the union representing Alaska Airlines pilots organized outside the carrier’s terminals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Anchorage.
Pilots there have been without a new contract for three years, and continue to bargain for more flexible schedules and increased job security and wages alongside the Air Line Pilots Association. But the union claims its picket lines are not to blame for Alaska Airlines’ cancellations since pilots only organized on Friday, and the airline canceled 161 of its flights on Saturday and Sunday when pilots weren’t demonstrating. Rather, it says pilot attrition is the cause. “Alaska Airlines failed to properly plan for increased travel demand and take the steps necessary to ensure it attracted and retained pilots,” the pilots union said in a Friday press release.
Consulting firm Oliver Wyman projects there will be a shortage of pilots that exceeds 12,000 by 2023 due to an aging pilot population and strong use of early retirements. A series of now-deleted viral TikToks from late February chronicling how a JetBlue flight cancellation left people stuck for at least 48 hours in Las Vegas raised concern that pilots had gone on strike, but there have been no such reports.
“Alongside other carriers, we continue to be impacted by a national pilot shortage and the required training regimen to bring new pilots onboard,” Alaska Airlines acknowledged in a statement Saturday. Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in an email to pilots on Friday that the carrier will offer 150% of their pay to pick up extra flights.
Brett Snyder, author of the Cranky Flier airline industry site, says airports haven’t been this busy since before the pandemic began two years ago, when airlines saw record-low passengers and deep financial losses. But with 65% of the nation now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, combined with pent-up demand amid the busy spring break season, airlines are left scrambling to rebuild their networks and employee ranks, as some 400,000 airline workers were fired or furloughed in the last two years. “That means they may have less slack than they’d like, and something like the bad weather Florida experienced this weekend can create havoc more easily,” Snyder says.
What to do if your flight is canceled
With 304 U.S. flights already canceled on Tuesday and another 29 on Wednesday as of press time, travelers should be prepared for more unexpected flight changes to occur throughout this week. The first thing travelers should do when their flight is canceled, experts say, is look up their ticket information and review airline-specific policy.
Airlines are legally obligated to provide a full refund to customers if a flight is significantly delayed and the passenger chooses not to travel, but ultimately it’s up to the airline to determine what constitutes a significant delay. Passengers who choose to take the next available flight are not entitled to compensation under federal law, though some airlines may offer refunds if the delay is their fault or caused by mechanical issues. Southwest, however, has not publicly offered refunds for flights delayed by its weekend technology issues.
“If you’re at the airport, get in line to speak with an agent,” Snyder says. Passengers will typically be given a few options, such as a seat on the next available flight, their money back or travel credits that expire in one year. Passengers can also call their airline directly, but given the long wait times and potential challenges with dialing international phone numbers, Snyder recommends also sending a Tweet to the airline. Some airlines will also post updates on social media with a list of alternate options available.
But for travelers caught in the wrath of Florida’s weekend storm, experts note that airlines are not obligated to arrange any accommodations, so travelers will have to fend for themselves when it comes to meals and overnight lodging.
For travelers who booked their flights through an online travel agency, such as Expedia or Orbitz, the process can be a little more difficult. Customers are advised to contact the agency directly to resolve any issues, and the agency can then request a refund from the airline on the traveler’s behalf.
What does this mean as travel season ramps up?
Although some airlines are resuming near normal operations, the recent string of flight disruptions isn’t over yet. On Tuesday, 114 flights on Spirit Airlines are still canceled, and the delays have created a massive backlog for airlines with the effects reaching airports all across the nation, from Boston to Las Vegas to Dallas.
Experts warn the staffing shortages at Alaska Airlines and across the industry are most likely a lingering problem that could lead to continued delays and cancellations in the coming months. But extreme weather events are less predictable. “A flight cancellation is always a possibility for travelers at any time,” Snyder says. “Airlines can never predict the weather well enough to be able to schedule everything perfectly, so things can be derailed.”
Write to Nik Popli at [email protected].