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There are concerns airlines won't be able to keep up with busy summer travel

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Airlines say this year's summer vacation season could be their busiest ever. But after last season's flight delays and cancellations, the Biden administration is trying to require airlines to cover the costs that passengers incur during delays and cancellations. So will this year be better than last? NPR's David Schaper has been looking into it.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: 2022 certainly wasn't the best year for air travel. In fact, it may have been one of the worst.

ANDRE DELATTRE: Things were as bad as they've been in 25 years or more.

SCHAPER: Andre Delattre is with the Public Interest Research Group, which analyzed traveler complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation. He says the number skyrocketed last year as airlines struggled getting people to where they wanted to go.

DELATTRE: There were five times more complaints in 2022 compared to 2019, before the pandemic, even though fewer people were flying.

SCHAPER: Delattre says airlines delayed and canceled a staggering number of flights.

DELATTRE: A hundred and ninety thousand flights canceled last year. And other than the early months of the pandemic, that's more canceled flights than any year since 2001, when, of course, 9/11 disrupted air travel.

SCHAPER: A general accountability office investigation finds that staffing shortages, maintenance problems and other factors within the airline's control are largely to blame for the sharp increase in flight disruptions. Now, most airlines handled the recent surge in spring break travelers relatively well. And they say they're much better prepared for this summer than last. But some in the industry aren't so sure.

GEOFF FREEMAN: This summer's travel demand will be as strong as we've seen since before the pandemic and potentially the strongest ever.

SCHAPER: Geoff Freeman heads the U.S. Travel Association, which represents airlines, hotels and other travel-related businesses.

FREEMAN: That type of demand in a system that is woefully underfunded and understaffed is likely to create substantial frustrations among travelers.

SCHAPER: Freeman puts the blame not on the airlines, but on Congress and the federal government. Air traffic control staffing shortages in the northeast led the FAA to ask airlines to reduce the number of flights this summer into and out of New York-area airports. The FAA is also struggling to upgrade outdated technology after an outage caused a temporary halt of all departures nationwide in January. And Freeman says extremely long wait times to get through Customs are hurting the recovery in international travel.

FREEMAN: These problems didn't come out of thin air. These problems have come out of years and years of underinvestment.

SCHAPER: Many airlines are flying bigger planes with more seats to meet the increased demand while cutting their overall number of flights, especially regional service to smaller airports. Another challenge for airlines is that airplane manufacturers, such as Boeing, are way behind in delivering new aircraft because of supply chain and production problems. And some airlines face yet another problem with their labor unions.

DENNIS TAJER: The pilots at American Airlines are ready to strike.

SCHAPER: Dennis Tajer is spokesman for American's pilots' union, which voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if they cannot reach a deal. While walking a picket line at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Tajer says the key sticking point isn't over pay, but American's scheduling practices that he says stretches pilots too thin.

TAJER: I don't know what's going to happen this summer. That's why we're out here. There's so much uncertainty, it's even shaken us to our core.

SCHAPER: Pilots at Southwest are voting on whether to authorize a strike, too. And unions for employees at those and other airlines are also in tense negotiations. If there's any silver lining for air travelers it's that air fares, which had been soaring, are starting to level off and even drop, especially for flights next fall after the summer travel rush is over.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISEY'S "SQUARE PUSHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.