United Airlines was struggling on Friday to recover from a week of flight delays and cancellations, testing the resilience of its operation as people head to airports ahead of the busy July 4 holiday.
The airline’s troubles began last weekend in the New York area. At the time, United blamed the disruption on thunderstorms and federal air traffic control staffing shortages and inexperience. Other airlines suffered flight delays and cancellations at the time, too, but by Wednesday United’s problems stood out as they spread to its operations across the country.
The situation appeared to improve somewhat on Thursday. After canceling over a quarter of its flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, United scrubbed about 19 percent of its schedule, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking firm. Still, the number of flights canceled by United on Thursday, more than 520, eclipsed cancellations by other carriers.
United said that it was closely monitoring the weather in Denver and Chicago, two of its hubs, and that it hoped to have fewer last-minute cancellations. By midday Friday, the airline had canceled more than 220 flights, or 8 percent of its schedule for the day, according to FlightAware. More than 500 flights, or 18 percent of its schedule, were delayed.
“We’re seeing continued meaningful improvement today after an overnight effort to further repair schedules and match separated crews with aircraft,” United said in a statement on Thursday afternoon. “As the recovery progresses, delays and cancellations will continue to decline as we head into what we expect to be a very busy holiday weekend.”
Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, singled out the airline on Twitter on Thursday, sharing a chart that showed that other carriers had recovered from bad weather earlier in the week while United had not.
Earlier in the week, United’s chief executive, Scott Kirby, said in a memo to employees that the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air traffic control and is a part of the Transportation Department, had “failed” United over the weekend. Mr. Kirby similarly blamed air traffic control for delays last summer, later apologizing to Mr. Buttigieg for the way he had characterized that criticism in a letter to employees.
The disruption this week comes during one of the busiest periods for air travel in years. The Transportation Security Administration reported screening more than 2.7 million people on Thursday, one of its busiest days since 2019. Only four other days have been busier since the pandemic began, all in recent weeks. AAA, the travel club, said it expected nearly 4.2 million people to fly this weekend, up 6.6 percent from 2019.
Throughout the week, United passengers have reported having to sleep in airports and stand in line for hours to rebook flights. Some travelers said they had to wait days to retrieve checked bags.
Elizabeth Rodriguez, traveling with her 12-year-old son, said in an interview on Friday that it took days longer than expected to get home to Fairfax, Va., from Texas. On Wednesday morning, just hours before they were originally scheduled to depart on a United flight from San Antonio International Airport, she was notified by text and through the airline’s mobile app that the flight was canceled because of crew scheduling issues.
When she called customer service to rebook, she was told there was a two-hour wait. With no other available flights to the Washington area that day, she booked a flight online departing the next day via Houston. After landing in Houston on Thursday night, her flight to Reagan National Airport was delayed repeatedly into Friday morning.
“United Airlines handled this week poorly, was ill-prepared and failed to be transparent with passengers throughout the entire process,” Ms. Rodriguez said, adding that testy gate agents had offered many reasons for the ordeal, from crew scheduling issues and weather to mechanical problems.
And the airline handed out hotel vouchers for only some passengers on her flight, she said. Ultimately she ended up paying for a hotel room herself. Her flight finally departed on Friday morning, 15 hours after its original departure time.
“I am so frustrated with delays, but even more so with how they treated people at the airport,” she said. “I don’t know if I will use United again.”
Her exasperation was similar to what passengers of Southwest Airlines felt over the winter holidays, when that carrier suffered a much bigger operational meltdown. Southwest canceled more than 10,000 flights in the four days after Christmas, or about 46 percent of its schedule. On United’s worst day this week, Tuesday, it had canceled nearly 800 flights, or about 28 percent of its schedule that day.
The disruptions have left pilots and flight attendants frustrated, too. Many have had to wait on hold for hours to get reassignments after flights were canceled. Some flight attendants slept at airports, too, according to social media posts.
“Weather last weekend affected everyone, but United is the only airline still struggling to recover and we know why,” Ken Diaz, president of the United chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents more than 25,000 United flight attendants, said in a statement on Thursday. “United management’s failure to properly staff crew schedulers, the flight attendant support team and more has exacerbated these operational issues and left passengers and flight attendants waiting for answers for hours at a time.”
Mr. Diaz said United had “lost” crews in its system for days because of the breakdown. He also said that the union had warned management last year of problems that could contribute to more disruptions, but that the airline “charged ahead” with an ambitious flight schedule this summer. United used some of the union’s recommendations to get through the current disruption, including making changes to its schedule and agreeing to hisse flight attendants three time their olağan hisse to pick up trips through July 6, Mr. Diaz said.
Pilots have expressed similar frustrations.
“It is United Airlines management that is failing our loyal customers by ignoring the warning signs and failing to properly plan,” Capt. Garth Thompson, president of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association union, which represents more than 15,000 of the airline’s pilots, said in a statement.
The New York Times