Barrett Lane was on his way from Washington, D.C., to one of his college best friend’s wedding in Thousand Oaks, California, when his flight was delayed ahead of July Fourth weekend.
The 34-year-old transportation project manager and his husband had flown into Newark, New Jersey, where they were supposed to change planes, when their United Airlines flight to Los Angeles was pushed back four hours because of a maintenance problem.
Several more delays later, the couple boarded the plane Wednesday night along with other passengers, and sat at the gate for three hours.
The airline eventually let them deplane, and the flight was pushed back until the morning. Hotels were full, so the couple slept on cots on the airport floor.
“I think I maybe slept like an hour total,” Lane told USA TODAY. By the time the flight finally took off the next morning, it had been delayed more than 14 hours.
While Lane's experience was on the extreme end, flight delays and cancellations have become all too common this summer as air transportation struggles 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
United gave the couple a total of $60 in food vouchers and $300 in-flight credit each, Lane said. A customer service representative also told Lane the airline would refund the miles he used for the flight (his husband booked separately and had not called customer service yet). And while he planned to skip the wedding rehearsal to rest, he is going to try to enjoy the trip and occasion.
"You can talk about your travel drama for a little bit ... but the focus is on the bride and the groom and the wedding party," he said. "So, I'm going to try my best not to be the main character this weekend."
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.
What's going on in the airports today?
Around 6 p.m. ET on Friday, about 515 U.S. flights had been canceled and over 5,300 more were delayed, according to FlightAware, which tracks flight status in real-time.
Delta Air Lines has the most cancellations of any carrier in the U.S., with about 100 flights axed so far, representing about 3% of the airline's schedule for today. That number does not include flights operated by Delta's regional affiliates.
The Federal Aviation Administration warns that things could get more difficult Friday as summer storms threaten to cause problems in large swathes of the country.
✈️ Traffic Report: ⛈️could slow flights at @ATLairport, @CLTAirport, @DENAirport, @FLLFlyer, @fly2midway, @fly2ohare, @flyTPA, @HobbyAirport, @iah, @iflymia and @MCO. https://t.co/teUeDe1gXxpic.twitter.com/bV6UcYRNF3
— The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) July 1, 2022
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.
Traveling for July Fourth? Here are 5 things to know before flying, driving this weekend.
Summer travel woes: What airlines owe you when flights are canceled, delayed
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: Fourth of July air travel could be messy this year: How to prepare