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Air Travel Frustrations Rise Amid Chronic Delays And Cancellations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During the summer, when the pandemic seemed to decline, only to fire up again, many Americans made travel plans. Airports are packed, as they once were, although many travelers face delays and cancellations. NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Getting a flight from New York to Chicago should be easy enough, but not for Jillian Estanich, who was stuck at LaGuardia last week for a second straight day.

JILLIAN ESTANICH: I was at the airport yesterday for seven hours. I am now looking at being at the airport for another seven hours today.

SCHAPER: Estanich's first flight home to Chicago after a two-week vacation was canceled because of storms. She tried to get on numerous other flights' standby, but to no avail. United rebooked her on a flight early the next morning, but that was delayed again and again and again. Once finally in the air, as the plane got over Indiana - more trouble. It was forced to circle to avoid more storms.

ESTANICH: We got inched a little bit closer, and then they started circling us again. And at that point, they closed O'Hare, and we did not have enough fuel. So we got diverted to Indianapolis.

SCHAPER: After refueling and waiting a couple of hours for O'Hare to reopen, the crew timed out. Estanich thought about renting a car, but the only place open at midnight had a huge line and wanted $600. So she rebooked for 11:30 the next day. But even that flight was delayed - not just once, but twice.

ESTANICH: And at that point, I just cried and cried and cried.

SCHAPER: Fed up, the 40-year-old rented a car and drove the three hours home to Chicago, albeit through the violent thunderstorm that had delayed her flight.

ESTANICH: It was just, like, you know, one thing after another just going horrifically wrong.

SCHAPER: Jillian Estanich is not alone, as even in the best of times, summer storms often mess up air travel. But this year is worse than most summers, and that's due in part to the near shutdown in air travel during the pandemic. Data from the flight tracking site flightaware.com shows that 25% of all domestic commercial airline flights since June have either been delayed or canceled.

NICK EWEN: I think it's been a summer of chaos with a little sprinkling of excitement.

SCHAPER: Nick Ewen writes about air travel for The Points Guy website and says while there's been a huge surge in domestic air travel demand...

EWEN: Airlines then have been a little bit slower to adjust to this sudden increase in demand, so there have been some staffing shortages, long hold times. And then, of course, you throw in weather, technology that cannot always be the most reliable, and there are the potential for some pretty significant headaches if you are taking to the skies this summer.

SCHAPER: Some airlines have had it especially bad. Earlier this month, Spirit was canceling up to 60% of its flights each day. Southwest and American both had major problems earlier this summer. Kathleen Bangs is a former commercial airline pilot now with FlightAware.

KATHLEEN BANGS: The biggest problem across the board for a lot of carriers was this huge halt, this grinding-to-a-halt shutdown with the pandemic.

SCHAPER: Bangs says it can take a while to get planes that were mothballed in the desert during the pandemic airworthy again, and it can take even longer to retrain idled pilots.

BANGS: It's not just coming back to work on the airplane you were on. Seniority might dictate that when you come back, you're in a different seat, meaning you've moved from captain to co-pilot or back again, and to a different airplane, which necessitates even more training.

SCHAPER: Bangs says as airlines catch up on bringing back and retraining pilots, flight attendants and other staff, air travel demand is now beginning to cool amid a surge in delta variant COVID cases.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIVID LOW SKY'S "ABOUT TO SET SAIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.