Airlines that have stumbled badly over the last two holidays face their biggest test yet of whether they can handle big crowds when July Fourth travelers mob the nation's airports this weekend.
Problems were popping up well before the weekend, with some disruptions caused by thunderstorms that slowed air traffic.
American Airlines canceled 8% of its flights on Tuesday and Wednesday, and United Airlines scrubbed 4% of its schedule both days, according to FlightAware.
Holiday revelers planning to drive face their own set of challenges, including high gasoline prices. The nationwide average has eased since hitting a record $5.02 in mid-June to $4.86 a gallon on Thursday, according to AAA, which expects prices to continue to ease because of rising gasoline inventories.
Americans are driving a bit less. Gas demand last week was down about 3% from the same week last June, according to government figures. In a Quinnipiac University poll in June, 40% of those surveyed said gas prices have caused them to change their summer vacation plans.
Air travel in the U.S. is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Since last Saturday, an average of nearly 2.3 million people a day have gone through airport checkpoints — down just 8% from the same days in 2019. If that trend continues through the weekend, records will be set for flying in the pandemic era.
Airlines may not have enough planes and flights to carry all of them, especially if there are cancellations due to weather, crew shortages or any other reason.
"Airlines are learning the hard way that there is a severe price for over-optimism," said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University. "They are on the edge of a cliff this holiday."
Schwieterman calculates that airlines have little cushion between the number of travelers expected to fly this weekend and the flights they plan to operate — if all goes well. Any disruptions could cause chaos because planes are booked full — there will be no empty seats on later flights to accommodate stranded travelers.
Airlines have been caught short-staffed as they try to hire thousands of workers, including pilots, to replace those who they encouraged to quit when the pandemic caused air travel to plummet.
Many of them, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, have trimmed summer schedules to reduce stress on their operations. They are using larger planes on average to carry more passengers with the same number of pilots. Those steps haven't been enough so far this summer.
Delta Air Lines took the unusual step this week of warning travelers that there could be problems over the holiday weekend.
The Atlanta-based airline said it expects the biggest crowds since 2019, and this will create "some operational challenges." It is allowing passengers booked on flights between Friday and the Monday holiday to change their schedule at no cost, even if the new flight comes with a higher fare.
Delta had by far the most canceled flights of any U.S. airline over the Memorial Day holiday stretch, when U.S. carriers scrubbed nearly 2,800 flights, and again last weekend, when it canceled 7% of its flights, according to FlightAware.
The airlines are increasingly trying to blame delays on understaffing at the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the nation's airspace and hires air traffic controllers.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.