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What American Airlines' canceled flights could mean for holiday travel plans

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Another busy travel weekend, add some bad weather, and you get another airline meltdown. And this time it's American Airlines, which canceled nearly 2,000 flights over the weekend and more than 350 flights today. Now, this follows similar issues in recent months at Southwest and Spirit Airlines. NPR's David Schaper reports it might not bode well for those planning travel over the upcoming holiday season.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Betty Chittum's dream vacation turned into a nightmare at Charlotte's international airport this weekend, where she waited for hours for a flight that never took off.

BETTY CHITTUM: At this point, we want - we just want to go back home. But we don't want to lose the money that we've already paid for the resort.

SCHAPER: American Airlines blamed bad weather Thursday and Friday at its largest hub in Dallas, coupled with shortages of pilots and flight attendants. The problems rippled through the airline's entire network, leading to delays and cancellations across the country. Especially hard hit our other hub airports like Charlotte, where a frustrated Van Johnson wasn't buying the airline's explanation.

VAN JOHNSON: I don't understand why it's canceled. I've heard they don't have enough staff. Well, you sold me a product. I paid for it. Now it's your job to get me there.

SCHAPER: Industry experts say American's problems did start with bad weather. Kathleen Bangs is a former commercial airline pilot now with the flight tracking firm flightaware.com.

KATHLEEN BANGS: You did have a front coming through Texas with some really significant winds - 50-, 60-mile-an-hour winds, which is pretty high for an airliner to be landing in.

SCHAPER: The Dallas Fort Worth airport had to reduce operations from five runways to just two. And with far fewer flights able to take off and land at Dallas, pretty soon hundreds of American's planes and flight crews are out of position, scattered around the country. Bangs says normally a big hub-and-spoke airline would be able to recover quickly because they'd have extra pilots and flight attendants available. But American, like other airlines, is short-staffed right now.

BANGS: Because with the pandemic, so many people took early retirement. So many people took, you know, leaves. And they are really scrambling, as everybody is, to get these crews back into place and also just to hire new ones.

SCHAPER: Another factor is that the bad weather and tight staffing levels collided at the end of the month, when many potential extra pilots and flight attendants had already maxed out the number of hours they can work. But American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer says this isn't a new problem for the airline, as there were similar widespread cancellations a couple of times over the summer.

DENNIS TAJER: Management, after Mother Nature hits, cannot connect the pilots and the flight attendants to the airplane. And it lasts and lingers for days after the storm.

SCHAPER: He says the company doesn't have the flexibility and scheduling to be better prepared for bad weather. And he worries about what that could mean for the holidays.

TAJER: Right now, management is stuffing the holiday turkey with uncertainty. And we've got to stop this. We've got to repair this operation for the holiday season.

SCHAPER: In a statement, American says the airline is staffing up in preparation for the holidays, with 1,800 flight attendants returning to service starting today and 4,000 new pilots and other workers joining the airline before the end of the year. And other airlines are also scrambling to get more workers on board to be better prepared for the uptick in travel even before the holiday season begins.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.