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American Airlines and United pare flights as delays and cancellations surge

Flight delays and cancellations could last through July 4 weekend
Flight delays and cancellations could last through July 4 weekend 02:18

Airlines in the U.S. are struggling to meet a surge in consumer demand for domestic and international air travel as they face acute worker shortages, including in the cockpit.  

American Airlines on Thursday said it is dropping service to four small cities in Iowa, New York and Ohio because it doesn't have enough pilots to captain planes. 

"In response to the regional pilot shortage affecting the airline industry, American Airlines has made the difficult decision to end service in Dubuque, Iowa, Islip and Ithaca, New York, and Toledo, Ohio," the carrier said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch. 

The service change takes effect September 7. American Airlines said it will contact customers scheduled to travel to these destinations after the cut-off date to help them make alternate arrangements. 

American Airlines has 100 regional aircraft that cannot fly because their cockpits are empty, according to the company. A spokesperson for the carrier added that it made the route cuts in anticipation of pilot and other crew member shortages persisting for the foreseeable future. 

"That shortage could loom for some time, so we are taking bold, innovative steps to address the issue head-on," the spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

Nationwide flight cancellations wreak havoc for travelers 02:52

Consumers got a taste of what the summer air travel season could look like over the Father's Day weekend, when thousands of canceled flights left passengers stranded and luggage piled up at airports across the globe. 

Aviation consultant Kit Darby said a lack of pilots will continue to disrupt flights worldwide through the summer travel season, and probably beyond. That's because many pilots have retired during the pandemic, and it can take years to train qualified replacements. 

Because of the shortage, airlines can't keep as many pilots or crew members on standby, leading to more frequent service disruptions. 

"If you have normal things like airplane maintenance, weather, delays, they are much more severely felt because there are no reserved, extra pilots or flight attendants, and the chain is only as good as its weakest link," Darby said.

Raising pay for pilots could attract more people to the profession in the long term, but that's not a quick fix that will help smooth operations this summer. 

"More money doesn't create more pilots right away — it just moves pilots around if one company pays more than another, but it didn't create another pilot," Darby said. 

"Congestion challenges"

United said Thursday it is eliminating 50 flights a day out of Newark Liberty International airpot to reduce delays and cancellations, citing "congestion challenges" at the New Jersey facility. The cuts represent 12% of United's flights out of Newark. The changes, which are effective July 1, will not end service to any of the airline's markets. 

United said that although airline had prepared for the summer travel surge by staffing up, following service disruptions at Newark the company requested a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration that allows the airline to temporarily adjust its schedule.

In a memo circulated to United employees, Chief Operations Officer Jon Roitman said the airline has the capacity to run its usual Newark schedule, but that it is making the changes to reduce congestion and minimize delays and cancellations. 

"Even though we have the planes, pilots, crews, and staff to support our Newark schedule, this waiver will allow us to remove about 50 daily departures which should help minimize excessive delays and improve on-time performance — not only for our customers, but for everyone flying through Newark," he said. 

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