The summer travel season is off to a turbulent start. Since Thursday more than 5,000 flights have been canceled, leaving thousands of travelers in limbo.
Canceled flights and stranded passengers turned the holiday weekend into a travel nightmare. Airlines cited bad weather, but industry experts point to a deeper problem: a major pilot and crew shortage caused by the pandemic. The question now: why is this happening, and how long could it last?
"When we hit the Atlanta airport, it became 100% chaos," said Joe Reis who was stranded overnight in Atlanta coming back from his Caribbean honeymoon. "They are supposed to have a way to be able to make sure that people like you and I have a way to get from one destination to the next."
More than two years after the pandemic began, travelers are ready to move and that's despite the cost. Airfare is up 47 percent since January.
Industry experts say the problem is multi-pronged, blaming severe weather and a pilot and flight crew shortage that hasn't caught up from COVID layoffs. Those same experts point out that demand has roared back faster than airlines have been able to hire.
"It takes time to recruit hire and train people to work at airports," explained airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. "The summer of 2022 is going to be travel hell."
United's chief executive Scott Kirby lays some of the blame on a staffing shortage at FAA traffic control towers. "They're doing everything they can, but like many in the economy, understand, have staffing issues," said Kirby.
The FAA has acknowledged personnel gaps at a few locations due to COVID but says there's not a nationwide shortage.
Major U.S. airlines are now cutting flights in July and August, hoping the situation improves. However, analysts say the July Fourth weekend is "not looking good."
"Airlines have reduced their plan of summer flights in order to build up a buffer of pilots, flights and aircraft," said Harteveldt. "There's only so much they can be expected to cut back if they still want to be able to serve people."
The airlines have lost thousands of pilots, many of whom were fired or laid off during the pandemic, and training them takes years. For that reason, experts say these delays and cancellations could go into next year.