American Airlines Cancels Hundreds of Flights This Summer—Here's What Happened

The airline industry faces a bumpy road to recovery

American Airlines planes finishing up for take-off at gate
Pham Le Huong Son / Getty Images

Though thousands of travelers are ready to take to the skies this summer, it turns out that some airlines aren’t quite ready for the crowds. American Airlines has canceled nearly 1,000 flights through mid-July, citing bad weather and labor shortages, per a statement to CNN.

To save money during the pandemic, American, like most airlines, cut staff, whether through early retirement incentives, voluntary leaves of absence, or furloughs. But now that travel is racing back to pre-pandemic levels, staff is being brought back to meet demand.

When it comes to ground operations, staffing up is relatively straightforward. (Though American did ask corporate employees to volunteer for airport shifts to fill some staffing gaps earlier this month.) Flight crews, however, have a longer path to reinstatement, and that’s where American’s labor shortage has affected this summer’s flight schedules.

“Pilots and flight attendants need to complete recurrent training to stay certified to fly, and basically, some of their statuses expired because they weren’t flying during the pandemic,” said David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter at The Points Guy. “American also retired some of its fleet types during the pandemic and reassigned those pilots to different aircraft types, which also requires training.”

One could argue that American should’ve anticipated this problem—the airline certainly keeps close tabs on its flight crews’ certifications.

“Given the known labor shortage, American could have chosen to add fewer flights to its schedule, leaving a bit of a buffer for operations to be interrupted by weather and such. Instead, it seems to have built the biggest schedule it could, with little-to-no margin for error,” said Slotnick. “When a series of storms occurred in the first three weeks of this month, disrupting American’s operations, that missing margin for error became a problem.”

On the other hand, United has been more conservative with its summer scheduling, which gives it more room to tackle labor shortages. But given the financial hit to the airlines last year, it’s not at all surprising that American would want to maximize profits this summer by bulking up its flight schedule as much as possible.

It’s also likely that American did expect the summer surge in travel and attempted to plan accordingly, but it underestimated the scale of that demand. “There was wide thought that the demand wouldn’t recover as quickly as it did,” said Alex Miller, founder and CEO of UpgradedPoints.com. 

As frustrating as these cancellations are, travelers should probably give airlines a little slack. “It’s easy to blame this on poor planning and mismanagement, but the pandemic, and the subsequent recovery, threw the entire industry into a highly unpredictable state of flux,” said pilot Patrick Smith of AskThePilot.com. “Running an airline involves some hugely complex logistics, and meanwhile, things have been changing on short notice, both for better and for worse.”

Fortunately, American’s flight crew shortages are only affecting about one percent of its planned flights this summer. Plus, this shouldn’t be a long-term problem. "A source at the pilots’ union tells me they all expect to be current again by the end of summer," Slotnick explained.

But if you’re flying over the next few months—no matter what airline—you’ll definitely want to keep tabs on the status of your booking. It's certainly possible that other airlines will face similar issues.

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