Summer storms, airport crowds make July the worst time to fly

Gather round, air travelers. The sky may be unfriendly for a while.

If history is any indication, we’re about to enter the time of year with more delays caused by extreme weather — as well as some of the busiest flying days on record. The Transportation Security Administration recently broke a single-day record by screening nearly 3 million passengers and expects to see more than 32 million between June 27 and July 8.

July was hit hardest by extreme weather last year, with 7,996 delays, according to federal data. It was the worst month for those delays dating back to at least 2016. July was the worst month of the year by this metric in six of the last eight years.

Between June and August last year, there were nearly 20,000 delays due to extreme weather. That’s more than the number of those delays in the least affected six months combined.

Why delays are worst in summer

The Department of Transportation defines extreme weather delays as those caused by actual or anticipated “significant meteorological conditions,” such as a tornado, blizzard or blizzard that would delay or prevent the operation of a flight.

Delays caused by non-extreme weather are listed in another category that also includes airport operations, heavy traffic volume and air traffic control. Department for Transport statistics show that weather accounts for the majority of these delays – often more than 60 per cent – in the months between May and August.

Summer storms include “lightning that can shut down airport operations, in some cases completely shutting down arrivals and departures at major airports,” Robert W. Mann, a consultant and former airline executive, said in an email. Bad weather can stop traffic along busy flight corridors. He said these summer conditions are more likely and more widespread than winter outages, making summer delays more widespread.

Kathleen Bangs, spokeswoman for flight tracking service FlightAware and a former airline pilot, said storm lines can force an airport to quickly adjust operations, including directing planes that take off and land.

“That doesn’t tend to happen in the winter,” she said. “You don’t have that many rapid changes in such a short period of time.”

Little protection for weather delays

For summer travelers, the collision of storm delays and full flights can lead to additional frustration. Mann pointed out that there would probably be fewer empty seats to accommodate passengers whose flights were canceled or who missed connections.

“With so many people traveling in the summer, your options can be pretty limited,” said Katy Nastro, spokeswoman for cheap flight alert service Going.

Also limited: airlines’ responsibilities when delays are caused by weather. Major carriers have pledged to take certain actions for customers such as offering meal and hotel vouchers in the event of cancellations and long delays caused by “controllable” circumstances.

“Unfortunately, that uncontrollable scenario gives you less rights,” Nastro said.

However, regardless of the reason, if a flight is canceled or significantly delayed and a passenger ends up not traveling, they are entitled to a refund. Once a new DOT rule goes into effect later this year, those refunds should be issued automatically.

How to avoid flight delays

Air travel experts say passengers should keep a few tips in mind for the best chance of smooth sailing during the stormy months.

Nastro said if people are still planning their trip — or have the ability to change an existing trip — they should take the earliest flight of the day they can find. The chance of bad weather is lower and planes are usually waiting at the airport, so the risks of delay are limited. And if something went wrong, travelers would still have time to try to catch later flights.

Another perk to morning flights? “You’ll almost always have a smoother ride,” Bangs said.

Travelers should also take non-stop flights whenever possible to avoid the possibility of disruptions during layovers and possible missed flights.

Bangs recommends checking the National Weather Service’s national forecast chart and a Federal Aviation Administration site that shows the status of the nation’s airspace. If there are major storms or delays where you’re going, it can give you a chance to proactively make alternate arrangements.

“It gives you that information so you can start looking ahead,” she said. “I look at the country as a kind of big chessboard and you can make some moves forward knowing what’s going on.”

If you know before you leave for the airport that your flight will be delayed, experts suggest playing it safe and showing up on time as long as the posted delay is two hours or less. If you want to stay home, use a flight tracking site like FlightAware or Flightradar24 to track your plane’s location and make sure you’re signed up for airline notifications.

“Be very careful about what you choose to do,” travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of the Atmosphere Research Group, told the Washington Post last year. “At the end of the day, the airline is not responsible for making sure you’re on the plane. That depends on you. When it’s time to take off, that plane will leave.”

Andrea Sachs contributed to this report

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