Let's Talk About...Flight Cancellations

Published on: Nov 8, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
People check in for departure flights at an airport in Houston, Texas after Spirit Airlines and American Airlines canceled hundreds of flights in August 2021.Getty Images

There’s no place like home for the holidays...unless you’re dealing with canceled flights and can’t get to your destination.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many Americans are getting ready to put up their OOO and get away for the holiday season. But over the past few months, some airlines have been making last-minute flight cancellations. (Think: American, Southwest, Spirit.) And it’s left people wondering why there’ve been so many issues. And what will happen when it’s time for them to hit the road, er, runway.

Pulling the Curtain Back: Why Airlines Have Been Struggling

Over the summer, airlines were already experience turbulence. Spirit Airlines frustrated travelers when it canceled more than 2,800 flights over 11 days. The move cost the budget airline $50 million in revenue. Around the same time, Southwest canceled hundreds of flights too. And said they’d schedule fewer flights in the coming months to prevent this issue from happening again.

Fast forward to early October, and Southwest was back in the hot (plane) seat. It canceled more than 2,000 flights in one weekend. And later that month, American Airlines did the same thing – scrapping more than 1,700 flights during Halloween weekend. That includes more than 800 in one day alone – equivalent to 30% of its schedule during that period.

Now, airlines are saying ‘it’s complicated.’ And have pointed to a couple of reasons, including bad weather and air traffic control issues for the surprise cancellations. But what’s proving to be a key issue is labor shortages.

  • Here’s the backstory: The travel industry was among the hardest hit at the start of the pandemic. Airline passenger traffic in the US fell 60% in 2020. And companies were forced to furlough or lay off tens of thousands of employees. But since the spring, air travel has started to rebound as more Americans have gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. But the increase in travelers has not solved staffing shortages.

  • Hiring’s been tough: Companies have been trying to hire pilots, flight attendants, and other workers to avoid this issue in the future. But for now, union reps for airline workers say they’re understaffed and overworked. And they’re also dealing with a rise in unruly passengers, including some who have been charged with assaulting flight attendants. Oftentimes over the mask mandate on public transportation.

How Airline Issues May Affect Holiday Travel

Surprise: The timing of these problems isn’t exactly great news for people planning to hop on a plane soon. Airlines have tried to reassure customers that they’re working to keep travelers feeling jolly. But there are two issues that could throw a wrench in those plans, like...

  • International travelers. As of Nov 8, the US is welcoming fully vaccinated travelers from 33 countries. And airlines are prepping for an influx of travelers once the country reopens its borders. Employees will be tasked with collecting contact tracing info and verifying vaccine proof. And this added workload could cause long lines and slower operations at airports.

  • Vaccine mandates. The White House previously set a Dec 8 deadline for federal contractors to get a COVID-19 vaccine (or apply for an exemption). That includes employees from major US airlines like Southwest and American. But some airline workers aren’t a fan of the mandate. Southwest’s pilots union went as far as to ask a court to block it, citing the potential side effects that could prevent them from flying. But a federal judge denied the request. Some companies, like Delta Airlines, said that 90% of its workforce is already fully vaxxed. But unvaxxed workers could potentially be suspended – adding to the ongoing issue of staff shortages during a predicted busy travel season.

What to Do If You Run Into Travel Trouble

Traveling in itself can be stressful. Flight delays, cancellations, or other issues could cause even more turbulence. Here are some tips for a smooth trip…

  • Be prepared. (Sorry if the “Lion King” song is now stuck in your head.) Make sure you have everything you need: Your license and/or passport, a negative COVID-19 test or vaccine card (depending on where you’re going), your boarding pass (if you can access it in advance), and any other crucial items. Also, some experts say to only pack a carry-on bag if you can. That’ll help you avoid lengthy check-in or baggage-drop lines.

  • Stay alert. Continue to check on the status of your flight before you head to the airport and while you’re there. You can download the airline’s app or a third party app (like FlightAware or FlightStats) to check as well. You should be able to sign up for push, text or phone notifications for alerts on your flight’s info. This detail is especially key for those with a connecting flight.

  • Act fast. If your flight is canceled, call your airline or talk with a gate agent or customer service rep at the airport. And ask about your options. You also may be able to rebook a flight using the airline’s app. 

    • Heads up: If you book a flight through an online travel company like Expedia, you might have to reach out to them to deal with itinerary changes. 

  • Know your rights. Flight issues might make a lot of Qs pop in your head: Can I get on the next flight out? Am I eligible for a refund or other compensation? Will the airline put me up in a hotel? Check out the Department of Transportation’s website for details on refunds for cancelled or delayed flights. Plus, airlines have different policies when it comes to accommodating passengers in these situations. So make sure you know their policies.

  • Consider travel insurance. What’s covered varies by provider and policy. But basic travel insurance usually covers at least partial refunds for a number of things. Like cancellations or interruptions because you’re injured or sick, meals or hotels required if your flight changes for certain reasons, or damaged or lost property. We Skimm’d everything you need to know about travel insurance here.


The holiday season – will again – be different than previous ones because of the pandemic. And if you’re planning to travel, being prepared for disruptive bumps in the road may lead to less headaches down the line.

Last updated on Nov. 8 to reflect that fully vaccinated international travelers can enter the US.

Skimm'd by Maria McCallen and Kamini Ramdeen-Chowdhury

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