Memorial Day Travel Marks first Big Test for Aviation Industry

Pressure is mounting on airlines and the FAA to minimize flight disruptions that have occurred in recent months.

Experts are predicting the Memorial Day weekend to be one of the busiest on record as some 43 million travelers are expected to take to the roads and skies. [Credit: Shutterstock]

As millions of Americans are set to travel on Memorial Day Weekend, pressure is mounting on airlines, the FAA, and other industry stakeholders to minimize flight disruptions across the country.

Often called the unofficial start to summer, experts are predicting the holiday weekend to be one of the busiest on record as some 43 million travelers are expected to take to the roads and skies. 

According to AAA, there’s an anticipated 11 percent increase in the number of people planning to fly compared to last year and a 5.4 percent increase from 2019 levels.

"We know for sure that there is going to be a very high level of demand, a lot of traffic and a lot of pressure on the system," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with ABC News.

Airlines also expect to see an increase in passengers. United Airlines says the holiday will be its busiest in more than a decade, transporting 2.9 million passengers between Thursday and Tuesday, while Delta Air Lines expects to carry 2.8 million passengers over that period—a 17 percent increase from last year. American Airlines plans to operate more than 26,000 flights.

The surge will be an early test for the industry after having been plagued with a string of recent woes, such as technical glitches, flight disruptions, safety concerns, and staffing shortages.

The Southwest Airlines debacle in December resulted in the cancellation of more than 15,000 flights after the company’s outdated scheduling software crashed. 

Unfortunately, Southwest’s meltdown was only the beginning of other industry issues, including the FAA’s NOTAM system crash in January that led to the first nationwide ground stop since 9/11.

On top of the technical problems, 2023 has only highlighted the need for safety reform after several near-misses at U.S. airports—many  still under National Transportation Safety Board investigation. The FAA also is facing a serious shortage of 3,000 air traffic controllers, reportingreports that 1-in-5 positions remain unfilled nationwide.

However, airlines and the FAA are working together to alleviate these difficulties. Airlines have complied with the agency’s request to minimize flights to the Northeast by using larger aircraft to help with capacity because of a controller shortage at a key New York-area facility. The FAA also added 169 new flight routes along the East Coast to ease congestion.

While the dearth of controllers remains an obstacle, Buttigieg maintains it  is not the cause of most delays. FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen also backed that sentiment in a letter to Congress, noting that "about 5 percent of delay minutes can be attributed to FAA staff shortages."

"Cancellation and delay rates were at unacceptable proportions last year,” Buttigieg said. “It's important that (does not) not happen again."

While he believes improvements have been made, he also admitted it’s “no guarantee that summer is going to go well.”

Amelia Walsh
Amelia WalshContributor
Amelia Walsh is a private pilot who enjoys flying her family’s Columbia 350. She is based in Colorado and loves all things outdoors including skiing, hiking, and camping.

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