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What's ahead for travelers during July 4 "airmageddon"

48M Americans to hit the roads this weekend
48M Americans expected to hit the roads this weekend 02:31

As the U.S. prepares for what some in the industry are calling "airmageddon," travelers are bracing for a possible meltdown at airlines, airports and security and customs checkpoints, not to mention hotels and hotel services.

AAA predicts roughly 42 million Americans will take a road trip by car of 50 miles or more. 

But the real crunch: 3.5 million people are expected to fly this holiday weekend. Airfares cost, on average, 14% more, and in some markets have quadrupled. And hotel rates are up a whopping 23% since 2021.

On Saturday, flight cancellations rose to over 600, while delays topped 4,300, according to FlightAware, an organization that tracks flight data.

And all this is happening as the major airline and travel stakeholders spar over delays and cancellations. The airlines are blaming the Federal Aviation Administration for delays, the FAA claims the airlines are flying schedules they can't physically support, pilots are blaming the airlines for increased workloads and flying hours they claim could be a safety issue, passenger complaints against airlines are up 300% over 2019, and the U.S. Department of Transportation is contemplating emergency rulemaking options.

Flight cancellations and delays cause holiday travel woes 03:18

London's Heathrow and Gatwick are preemptively canceling flights, and government officials are considering implementing surge pricing for planes scheduled to operate during peak hours. 

Airlines worked Saturday to deliver luggage to passengers around the world after a technical breakdown left at least 1,500 bags stuck at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, the latest of several tangles hitting travelers this summer.

The airport's baggage sorting system had a technical malfunction Friday that caused 15 flights to depart without luggage, leaving about 1,500 bags on the ground, according to the airport operating company. The airport handled about 1,300 flights overall Friday, the operator said.

Union activists said many more passengers flew without their bags, apparently because of knock-on effects from the original breakdown.

It came as airport workers are on strike at French airports to demand more hiring and more pay to keep up with high global inflation. Because of the strike, aviation authorities canceled 17% of flights out of the Paris airports Friday morning, and another 14% were canceled Saturday.

Passengers on canceled flights were alerted days ahead of their flights. The scene at Charles de Gaulle on Saturday was busy but typical for the first weekend in July, when France's summer travel season kicks off.

Unions plan to continue striking Sunday but no flights have been canceled so far. They have threatened to renew the strike next weekend if negotiations with company management don't succeed in finding a compromise.

Travelers at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Frankfurt and Dublin have experienced hourslong lines, thousands of flight cancellations and thousands of bags missing and lost. 

In the U.S., the DOT reports that the airlines have lost or mishandled 21% more bags this year than last. 

Earlier this week, Delta issued an unprecedented July 4 weekend "air waiver" to its customers, citing "operational challenges." The airline admitted it expected trouble in supporting its schedule — meaning, they don't have enough pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and other employees to staff all their scheduled flights, among other challenges  — over the next four days, and encouraged travelers to rebook for other flights and other days without being charged any fees or penalties. The airline was essentially asking their passengers not to fly. No other U.S. airline has so far matched that waiver.

Many U.S. airlines continue to blame staffing at air traffic control centers, whose workers are Federal Aviation Administration employees. But the U.S. Department of Transportation says that the majority of airline delays have nothing to do with center staffing. Airlines are also parking dozens of 50-seat regional jets because they don't have the pilots to fly them — and because at current fuel prices the airplanes are unprofitable to operate. Translation: Secondary market cities in the U.S., such as Ithaca, New York, and Toledo, Ohio, will have severely reduced — or in some cases, no — airline service by Labor Day.

In the U.S., the DOT is considering imposing financial consequences on airlines publishing unrealistic flight schedules -- and the rules could force airlines to show they can support flights with the proper allocation of staff before they are allowed to schedule those flights. They're also talking about charging airlines more to schedule flights at peak times of 8 a.m. or 5 p.m — known as congestion pricing — as well as considering asking airlines to reschedule 30% of their flights to depart between 8 p.m. and 12 a.m., because night flights experience fewer delays.

But while airlines are canceling flights and cutting frequencies, Amtrak is a travel bright spot, adding to its schedules and running trains more frequently as a growing number of passengers are switching to trains for short- and medium-haul trips. And while AAA is reporting the total number of Americans expected to drive this weekend, they haven't estimated how many people will be in each car — and that number has also grown, as the cost of airfares has once again risen dramatically. It won't just be crowded on the roads — it will be crowded in the cars.

A second ray of hope: Future airline and hotel and resort bookings for after Sept. 15 have fallen off a cliff. One reason is seasonality — kids are back in school, parents are back at work. But the high cost of travel for the summer of 2022 could mean that for many Americans, when September rolls around, they will table travel for the remainder of the year. Those looking for better airfares and more seats available for frequent flyer awards might find bookings more affordable September through Dec. 15.

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