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Canceled flights and mask pandemonium: Crowds returning to flying are met with chaos

Tech issues and staffing shortages led to thousands of cancellations this month at American and Southwest airlines while passengers are still causing disruptions over masks and airports are struggling to keep workers.
A passenger checked the itineraries for departing flights at DFW Airport’s Terminal A on June 21.(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

By Kyle Arnold

Matthew Vohen chose a terrible weekend for his first-ever commercial airline trip.

The flight from Wisconsin to Corpus Christi was pleasant and the weekend visit with a friend along the Texas Gulf Coast and San Antonio was a joy. But the day of his return flight, Vohen began getting text messages from American Airlines.

First his 6:29 p.m. flight to DFW International Airport was delayed. Then it was canceled. He made it to Dallas on a late-night flight, but then he had to spend the night and didn’t return to Wisconsin until a day after he was originally scheduled to arrive, forcing him to miss work.

Little did Vohen know that both of Texas’ major airlines, Fort Worth-based American and Dallas-based Southwest, were in the midst of a seven-day stretch where thousands of flights would be canceled due to technical malfunctions, staffing issues and a basic struggle to ramp back up for a greater-than-expected surge in summer travelers.


“I loved my trip enough that I will probably do it again. In fact, I might even do it with American Airlines again,” said Vohen, a 26-year-old who works for a security firm. “The flight attendants and everything else has been great with their service. This is something they can’t control and I can’t control. I can’t blame it on them.”

Airline leaders hoping for a swift return to summer travel may be getting more than they bargained for after a year of persuading passengers that it’s safe to fly. Since summer travel season kicked off during Memorial Day weekend, the flying experience has been plagued by technical issues, staffing shortages at airlines and in airports, and heightened tensions in the air that have led to a record number of unruly-passenger complaints.

Not only have American and Southwest had their troubles — so have smaller airlines such as Allegiant.

The travel pain continued Friday with Southwest canceling another 155 flights and delaying 682 more, nearly a quarter of all the flights on the company’s schedule.

There have been fights in airports, fights on airplanes, long lines, closed airport restaurants and a host of other growing pains right when the airline industry needs passengers the most.


It hasn’t deterred passengers, who have returned to air travel in the greatest numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. More than 2 million have passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on seven days since June 11. While the number of airline passengers is still 23% below pre-COVID levels, planes for U.S. airlines were about 87% full on average for the week ending June 20, according to industry trade organization Airlines 4 America.

U.S. airports have reached 2 million travelers in a day seven times so far in June

Airline passengers are still below pre-pandemic levels, but leisure passengers are helping air travel rebound to levels not seen since before March 2020.

On June 13, some 220,000 passengers came through DFW International Airport, which has been the nation’s second-busiest airport this year.

The weekend of Vohen’s trip, American canceled hundreds of flights. The carrier blamed it on staffing backups from bad weather in much of the country in late May and June.

Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said the airline “may have bitten off more than they could chew” when it set a summer schedule 20% bigger than its competitors.


American’s unions for reservations agents and fleet workers, the employees who prep planes between flights, have complained about being understaffed and mandatory overtime.

To fix the problems, American said it was planning to reduce its schedule by 1% for the first half of July. It also agreed to a deal for limits on mandatory overtime with reservation agents.

“Our focus this summer — and always — is on delivering for our customers no matter the circumstance,” American Airlines spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said in a statement. “We never want to disappoint and feel these schedule adjustments will help ensure we can take good care of our customers and team members and minimize surprises at the airport.”

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