Travelers beware: Airlines, airports, FAA can’t guarantee smooth holiday weekend

One week ahead of the July 4 Independence Day holiday, even Donald Trump’s co-defendant couldn’t fly to South Florida for a court appearance in the former President’s classified documents case.

The reason: The three big airports serving the greater New York metropolitan area were chock-a-blocked with delayed and canceled flights. The plane carrying Waltine Nauta, his lawyer told a federal magistrate judge in Miami, was stuck for hours at Newark Liberty International Airport, and — you guessed it —  never got off the ground as bad weather and airline and FAA staffing shortages combined to tie up the air traffic system along the East Coast.

As the holiday weekend approaches, there is no guarantee that many of the thousands of passengers expected to take to the air won’t suffer a similar fate. On Wednesday, South Florida’s three international airports told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that they are expecting substantial passenger volumes for the period, including increases from last year. Given the volatility of the weather and other factors, none of them cared to forecast how the air traffic system might fare this weekend

By early Wednesday afternoon on the East Coast, nearly 3,000 U.S. flights had been delayed and more than 800 canceled, according to the online tracking system FlightAware.

Groundings plague system

Unending lines of thunderstorms forced the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily to ground flights headed for all three major airports in the New York area late Tuesday after holding up flights bound for Reagan Washington National and Baltimore-Washington airports near the nation’s capital, The Associated Press said.

Meanwhile, the FAA and the airlines returned to a now familiar blame game over who is responsible for a system that has been easily overwhelmed by unprecedented travel demand since the COVID-19 pandemic started to ease in late 2021.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, whose department includes the FAA, has been excoriating the airlines for more than a year, accusing them of failing to maintain reasonable standards of customer service. He suggested they are scheduling more flights than they can handle.

But United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby blamed a shortage of federal air traffic controllers for massive disruptions last weekend at its Newark hub.

“We estimate that over 150,000 customers on United alone were impacted this weekend because of FAA staffing issues and their ability to manage traffic,” Kirby wrote in a memo to employees, The AP reported.

Air-traffic controllers at Orlando International Airport.

Kevin Spear / Orlando Sentinel

Air-traffic controllers at Orlando International Airport. which also expects heavy July 4 holiday traffic. Critics say the FAA has been slow to hire more controllers to cope with the surge in post-COVID-19 air travel.

Record numbers of passengers expected

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is forecasting 568,194 travelers to fly in and out between Friday and next Wednesday, “a 9.1% increase from the 2022 holiday projection,” said spokeswoman Arlene Satchell.

The busiest travel days should be Sunday and Wednesday, she added, with 108,412 and 107,148 people on the move respectively.

“Overall, an average of nearly 95,000 daily passengers are expected to move through FLL for this holiday period,” Satchell said..

Miami International Airport “is expecting a slight increase over our record July 4th weekend last year, with an average of 145,000 daily passengers or 900,000 total passengers from this Thursday through next Tuesday,” said spokesman Greg Chin.

“As of 12 noon today, we have only had 8 arrivals and 3 departures canceled due to bad weather in the Northeast,” Chin added. “Otherwise, 90% of our arrivals and 87% of our departures have been on time today.”

Palm Beach International Airport is also looking for an uptick in passengers this year over last, said spokesman Joe Harrington.

“We are expecting a slightly busier travel weekend than the first few days of July last year,” he said.  “In 2022, there were approximately 16,000 to 20,000 passengers traveling through Palm Beach International Airport daily leading up to Independence Day.  With robust passenger counts so far this year, we expect a three- to five-percent increase.”

After several days of disruptions and pockets of chaos at the airports, the system seemed to have settled down as delays and cancellations declined on Wednesday, the Miami-Dade and Broward County airports said.

A man looks at the flight information board at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after an early morning FAA system outage caused delays across the country in January. An FAA system outage caused delays at the Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports on Monday, March 6, 2023.

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel

A man looks at the flight information board at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after an FAA system outage caused delays across the country earlier this year. South Florida’s airports expect record numbers of July 4 holiday passengers who could well face flight disruptions due to weather and system interruptions.

“Extended lightning storms locally, en-route and/or at the departure city, coupled with airline staff shortages as a result of delayed flights, are primarily what increased the number of delayed and canceled flights at MIA last weekend,” Chin said.

“Potential lightning storms this weekend — which are more common this time of year — could delay or cancel flights, so passengers should stay in close contact with their airline,” he added.

At Fort Lauderdale, there were eight cancellations and eight delays as of 1 p.m. Wednesday, Satchell said, with a total of 23 delays and 37 cancellations expected for the entire day.

On its website, the FA A forecast ground stops for all three South Florida airports after 3 p.m.

“Flight impacts … could be due to bad weather over parts of the U.S.,” Satchell said. “However, other factors such as airline operational issues and/or federal air space traffic management initiatives may also play a factor.”

From the Miami airport, here are its top five tips for travel during South Florida’s rainy season:

  • Arrive at least three hours before a domestic flight and three and a half hours before an international flight to give yourself enough time for the check-in and navigate the security checkpoint process.
  • Do airline check-in online before arriving at the airport.
  • Pack essential items such as medicine, travel documents, a phone charger, and a change of clothes in your carry-on instead of your checked bag in case your flight gets delayed and you are not able to quickly retrieve your checked bag.
  • If your flight gets delayed, be patient with airline employees as they work to reschedule your flight and remain in contact with your airline for flight updates.
  • To expedite checkpoint screening by the Transportation Security Administration, wear easily removable shoes, and avoid accessories that resemble weapons and other prohibited items. Find more agency screening tips on the TSA website.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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