Flight Cancellations in 2022 Have Already Soared Past Last Year's Total

As Americans approach one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, flight cancellations to the end of June have already exceeded 2021 totals. The misery suffered by U.S. air travelers in 2022 is set to continue as airline experts warn there is no quick fix to the industry's problems.

The warning comes as total cancellations are set to be the highest in a non-pandemic year on record, a situation described by experts as the worst ever.

The level of cancellations shows that:

  • More flights were canceled in June 2022 than any other previous June according to available data
  • More flights have already been canceled in 2022 than in all of 2021
  • Aside from the grounding of almost all flights in the early part of the COVID pandemic, 2022 is set to be the worst year on record for cancellations.

According to data provided to Newsweek by flight tracking firm FlightAware, there have now been more canceled flights within, into, or out of the U.S. in the first half of 2022 than in all of last year—121,918 to the end of June 2022, compared to 121,552 in 2021.

This puts 2022 on course to be the worst non-pandemic year for cancellations ever, set to surpass 2019, and could get close to the 298,000 flights canceled in 2020, when COVID upended the aviation industry as countries locked down and banned travel. Most of the 2020 cancellations were in March and April.

While the COVID pandemic put almost the entire airline industry on hold in early 2020, the delays and cancellations this year are "self-inflicted wounds," according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and adviser with Atmosphere Research Group.

In lockdown, Harteveldt said, "people were told to stay home, and non-essential travel was strongly discouraged. So air travel just evaporated." The current situation is very different, as travelers now expect their flights to happen.

Flight data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics for the last 27 years shows a similar pattern: the only other year that had over 200,000 cancellations was 2001, when many flights were grounded after the terror attacks of 9/11.

William McGee, senior fellow for aviation at American Economic Liberties Project, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that pilot shortages and other problems will persist. "Certain jobs cannot be filled quickly, nor should they be when it's as critical as, you know, pilots," McGee said. "And so now we have this shortage. There's just no way it's going to be fixed this summer."

Delayed flights are also hurting travelers. In the first half of 2022 there have been more than 890,000 delayed flights, representing 20.2 percent of flights. As a comparison, the first half of 2021 saw 456,000 delays, or 13.1 percent.

The chaos has been highlighted by Delta Air Lines offering a free rebooking waiver on flights over the 4th of July weekend, a measure normally reserved for extreme weather events or a labor strike.

The causes of the air travel disruption are a combination of factors. There are not enough air traffic controllers, a shortage of pilots, and bad weather events have had an effect. But the underlying problem to all this is too many scheduled flights.

"Airlines have been over-zealous in their scheduling," according to Harteveldt.

One longer-lasting effect of the pandemic is the pilot shortage. According to Harteveldt, too many pilots have taken early retirement and not enough have been trained to replace them. More than three times the usual number of pilots left the industry in 2020, and the time it takes to recruit and train new pilots means the situation will not be resolved any time soon.

"Airlines are doing all they can [to get new pilots], but it's not a problem they can solve easily."

Behind the Statistics: Personal Tales

Within the delays and cancellations are stories of personal angst: missed meetings or connecting flights, people unable to get to weddings or funerals, holiday plans upended.

Stand-up comedian Tara Brown received a text message from American Airlines shortly after midnight Tuesday informing her that her 10 a.m. flight home to Charlotte, North Carolina, from Nashville had been canceled. No reason for the cancellation was given.

Brown said she called American Airlines but it was pointless: "Forget about that, you can't get through." The only options for rebooking on the airline's app were Wednesday flights, resulting in her extending her car rental and hotel reservations for another day.

"Who pays for that extra car rental? Who pays for that extra hotel night? I'm a comedian, I'm not sitting on a ton of cash," Brown told Newsweek shortly after getting off her rebooked flight. "What happens to people who can't pay for that extra night?"

Courtesy of @TaraBrownComedy

Brittney White was returning Saturday from celebrating an anniversary with her boyfriend in Costa Rica when a delayed flight forced them to miss a connection in Charlotte on a journey home to Ohio. American Airlines booked them onto another flight Sunday morning for free.

White's new, 12:30 a.m. flight got delayed until 2:30 a.m., then 3:30 a.m. and then got canceled. All hotel vouchers had been given out, White said, but she was told to keep her receipts for reimbursement. After calling 20 hotels, she and her boyfriend found one 20 minutes away and checked in at 2 a.m.

White got a flight home Monday afternoon. The disruption cost her and her boyfriend $775 for the hotel, taxi rides and food, she said. The company has offered a $50 trip credit.

"Both my boyfriend and I have decided we are never going to fly with American again," White told Newsweek. "I don't want to deal with any airline canceling flights or leaving me stranded somewhere."

American Airlines was approached for comment, but had not replied by the time of publication.

In terms of normal service, the nearest comparison to 2022 is 2019, which was also a bad year for cancellations. In that year, delays were caused by severe weather, airport maintenance and construction work, and security-related disruptions. Cancellations were also caused by the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max. Overall, there were 170,000 cancellations, and 2022 is on course for a higher figure than that.

Consumer confidence in flying is falling fast. A U.S. travelers' survey by Atmosphere Research Group asked 1,770 leisure airline passengers (from May 31 to June 10) about their travel plans between May and September this year. Three in four—74 percent—said that they "regretted" having flown or planning to fly.

That sentiment is reflected in other data. More than three times as many complaints about airline service were filed in April with the U.S. Department of Transportation compared to April 2019. Of the 5,079 complaints, nearly a third concerned cancellations, delays and other schedule deviations. Another 32 percent involved refunds.

Although delays and cancellations are common across the industry, not all airlines are affected equally.

Among the 10 busiest airlines this year, American Airlines has had the most cancellations with 17,138 through June 29, according to data from Flightaware. That was 3.3 percent of its flights and above Delta Air Lines, which had the lowest rate of cancellation among the top 10 at 1.9 percent or 9,064 of its 489,738 flights.

More than one of every 20 flights of regional carrier Republic Airways has been canceled so far in 2022, the highest rate among the 10 busiest airlines. The airline flies on behalf of Delta, American and United Airlines and has canceled 10,133 of its 179,207 flights through June 26, or 5.7 percent.

Some airlines have seen a larger increase in their cancellations than others this year. American Airlines has canceled 56 percent more flights so far in 2022 compared to the second half of 2021, from 10,984 to 17,138 cancellations. Delta has seen the largest increase, a nearly four-fold jump to 9,064 cancellations from 2,314.

2022 Airlines With Most Cancellations

AirlineFlightsCancellations% Cancelled
American Airlines Inc.515,80117,1383.3%
Southwest Airlines Co.629,62715,6642.5%
Republic Airways179,20710,1335.7%
Delta Air Lines, Inc.489,7389,0641.9%
United Air Lines Inc.372,4068,6422.3%
SkyWest Airlines386,0618,5592.2%
JetBlue Airways168,2767,5064.5%
Endeavor Air, Inc.128,1124,6773.7%
PSA Airlines119,8164,4673.7%
Spirit Airlines, Inc.127,4934,0113.1%

Source: FlightAware

A note on the data

Newsweek has focused on cancellations rather than delays, as for many travelers, a delay (while very annoying) is usually less disruptive than a cancellation. Delays are also relative: two hours' delay on a three-hour journey is very different to a delay of 30 minutes on an eight-hour flight. Average delay times don't give an indication of severity. However, a cancellation is final—the flight doesn't happen.

While the number of cancellations as a percentage is indicative of industry troubles, the absolute number of flights canceled is also a greater measure of misery for passengers. For example, in May 2020 there were 9,448 canceled flights, representing 3.8 percent of all scheduled flights. In February 2022, there were also 3.8 percent of flights canceled, but due to the higher number of scheduled flights, that was from nearly 25,000 canceled take-offs. In terms of the total disruption to the public, the 25,000 flights have far more impact, despite being the same percentage.

Cancelled flights departure board
A display board shows canceled flights at Denver International Airport on March 13, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. More flights have been cancelled in the first half of 2022 than in all of 2021. Getty Images