It’s past 9:30 pm at Gate A8 in the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, and I am nearing 12 hours of the worst airline experience of my life. Our 11 am flight to Newark has been in bureaucratic limbo for almost ten hours with no sign of progress, or even cancellation. The staff at the gate have been unbelievably patient, but their genuine attempts to help have been stymied by the indifference of the airline for which they work. Did you know flight attendants reportedly don’t get paid by United until the moment the airplane doors close? So all of the hours these workers have spent behind this desk have been unpaid, and the United system shows them as being on prolonged breaks rather than being put through airport hell? I didn’t. This is the worst travel day I’ve ever had, but it pales in comparison to the experiences of the vast majority of the passengers-to-be in the cohort of strangers I’ve spent the day commiserating with: the snarky young woman on her seventh cancellation who is coming up on 72 hours in the airport; the weary-eyed man in blue who has been trying to get to the East coast since Friday and is begging for a flight to Ft. Lauderdale even though home is Portland, Maine (“at least it gets me closer”); the European guy who has been flying back and forth across America for over a week in a desperate attempt to find one flight to take him across the pond.
Until our flight is canceled our bags can’t be released and we can’t try to get to the airport hotel to start the painful process of rebooking. But despite the flight having only one of four crew members and zero pilots on hand, United Airlines refuses to cancel. For ten hours, passengers-to-be have stood in a static line that winds down the terminal. It feels like a particularly miserable camp-out the night before a concert, but for a band no one thinks will actually show up (or even likes in the first place). Three hours ago, we watched in horror as our two pilots quietly slipped off the plane, as it would have been illegal for United to make them work any longer. It’s been thirty minutes since our long-suffering United attendant was called to another gate, leaving the desk unmanned and an exhausted, irate queue stagnant in his absence. It’s not his fault; he’s the only United employee in the entirety of Terminal A. He has to go work at another gate filled with another batch of frustrated travelers on their umpteenth hour of waiting.
At almost 10 pm, not a single airline employee is anywhere to be found. If we’re here another hour, passengers might begin cannibalizing one another Donner-party style. Then, suddenly, one brave man long past his last nerve rips up the social contract. He walks behind the desk. Everyone looks around. Is this mutiny? Someone follows him, then another, and another. This is mutiny. They find the button on the phone for United ticket agents, they call baggage claim, they call anyone and everyone they can find. At whether this mutiny is the precipitating factor or not, at long last we can get our bags. At long last, we receive the text announcing the cancellation of the flight. A roar erupts. No one wanted their flight canceled. But, at this point, it was about so much more: being told the truth by an airline that seemed desperate to avoid embarrassment.
United is a particularly glaring perpetrator and have handled the issue poorly, but they’re far from the only airline facing this crisis. This week alone, over 30,000 flights have been delayed or canceled, and with the July 4th travel rush looming, it’s looking pretty grim. Why is this even happening? There’s severe weather slamming the East Coast. A record number of passengers hitting airports this summer (not to mention July 4th weekend, which is forecast to be record-breaking). FAA-related staffing shortages. Labor disputes. Oh, and the possible 5G interference that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned us about last week.
The current air travel meltdown is just the latest in a long history of travel disruptions and holiday weekend chaos.
As many have noted, recent years have seen unprecedented travel nightmares, and things only seem to be getting worse. It’s easy to feel like I alone have been through a uniquely hellish ordeal, but my Flight 519 cohort and every other traveler left stranded the past few days are simply joining the ranks of the unfortunate souls who underwent similar experiences last summer, the summer before, and the summer before that. Each summer is dubbed “the summer of hell,” only to be surpassed by next year’s travel hell. Are we just going to out-hell each previous summer for the rest of eternity? There’s no way to know, but we can at least walk down memory lane in hopes of understanding. So, from Delta’s mass cancellations in 2017 to last year’s Southwest Airlines crisis and chaotic summer months, here’s a look back at some of the worst air travel nightmares of the past few years.
2017: April showers = Delta flounders
Though Atlanta residents may not recall the thunderstorm that lasted for just a few hours on the first Wednesday of April 2017, Delta Airlines certainly does. The initial delays were typical for severe weather incidents, but they caused a ripple effect across the airline’s system with ramifications that lingered for over a week. Atlanta is Delta’s busiest hub, and the storm delays found the airline facing a crushing backlog of passengers. The upheaval of resulting staffing schedules prompted the cancellation of over 3,000 flights, leaving thousands of passengers stranded around the country.
2018: Computer glitch sends American Airlines scrambling
Following an error with the crew scheduling and tracking system of PSA Airlines—an affiliate of American Airlines (AAL) responsible for 12 percent of the airlines’ flights—tens of thousands of travelers were marooned in airports nationwide, with over 2,800 cancellations over the course of just a few days in the middle of June 2018. Passengers vented their frustration on Twitter, Facebook, and in one case, a window pane: one woman was so upset about her cancellation that she shattered an airport window while shouting a long string of obscenities. She was charged for damage to property. Her sentiment was shared by many.
2019: The “Summer from hell”
The grounding of Boeing (BA)’s 737 Max, the mass transfer of Homeland Security officials out of our airports (and down to the southern border), and an American Airlines labor dispute prompted what Bloomberg’s Justin Bachman called the “summer from hell” for air travel, a phrase quickly adopted around the country. That June saw 169,162 flights either delayed or canceled—meaning 1 in every 4 flights scheduled to take off that summer was disrupted.
2020: The COVID crisis
A new and very different kind of travel nightmare, the pandemic canceled of the vast majority of flights in mid-March 2020. By April, there were few passengers left willing to fly. The real crisis here was not for travelers, but airline employees. The industry was in an unprecedentedly grim predicament, and no one knew when—or if!– flights would ever return to normal. Some airline workers died from COVID, and the living were given gag orders telling them not to talk to the press. Tens of thousands of jobs were slashed, hundreds of millions of dollars lost. The industry was trapped in the purgatory of uncertainty: Was this the end of air travel as we knew it?
2021: Air travel is back! And so are its flaws
Despite the doom-heavy, soothsaying early days of the pandemic, by June of 2021, the air travel industry was on the road to full recovery (albeit, of course, with masked passengers). Airports and airlines alike began to return to their pre-pandemic success, which naturally came hand-in-hand with their pre-pandemic failures. Weather challenges and technological snafus proliferated once more, notably for Southwest Airlines which, even prior to their major fiasco in December 2022, was no stranger to frustrated clientele. In June of 2021, issues with weather data and so-called “network connectivity” failures burgeoned, resulting in delays to over half of Southwest flights, with at least 10 percent canceled. In October 2021, just a few months later, Southwest suddenly canceled upwards of 1,800 flights the weekend before the Boston Marathon. Hundreds of runners were stuck in airports on race day.
2022: The real summer–and winter!–from hell
If the summer of 2019 was the summer from hell, the chaos and misery of travel in 2022 proved that not all hells are equal, and some are more hellish than others. Going by the flood of articles bemoaning the unprecedented hellishness of travel in 2022, that summer marked our descent into a second circle of the travel inferno (and given that many are insisting that 2023 is its hellish “sequel,” it seems like we’re currently making quick progress through the third). The number of delays, cancellations, and customer complaints all significantly increased from the previous summer from hell. There were constant issues with maintenance, technology and staffing, as aggressive scheduling resulted in flight crews timing out without crew members to replace them, an issue made exponentially worse in the wake of severe weather incidents.
Summer was bad enough, but then came winter, and along with it, the infamous Southwest snafu. More than 15,000 flights—over 62 percent of the airline’s total, some days —were canceled. Thousands of families were left sitting on airport floors with no option but to desperately wait. Nationwide blizzards and severe winter weather served as the catalyst, but ended up being only the beginning of the crisis. For over ten days, Southwest was unable to recover. Flights were understaffed, employees were overworked, bags were lost and the airline could not be contacted. Adding insult to injury, stranded passengers found themselves competing with the airplane crews for limited hotel rooms.
To this day, the Southwest scheduling meltdown remains the gold standard of airport nightmares—but given the nightmarish experiences of the past week and the grim predictions for the upcoming weekend, this July 4th might just give it a run for its money. Let’s hope it doesn’t (not least because I myself am still trying to make it home!), but if the pattern of airline disturbances in recent history tells us anything, it’s that deeper circles of travel hell always await us; we just have yet to experience them.