What Is a “Normal” Number of Flight Cancellations?

Even in normal times, airline cancellations happen more than travelers realize. Here’s what you need to know about managing (and avoiding) the chaos.

Passenger in front of flight board at airport

Roughly 1 percent of all flights in the United States are canceled in a normal day.

Photo by Shutterstock

Last summer’s travel grief may be repeating itself as we slide into the Fourth of July holiday and a weekend that’s forecast to see a record number of air travelers. Since Sunday, June 25, more than 8,000 flights have been canceled nationwide, and roughly 40,000 flights have been delayed. The problem is primarily the result of bad weather on the East Coast, which has created a domino effect throughout the country, with planes and crews unable to get where they need to be.

If you’ve been watching the chaos unfold (or were one of the many travelers affected), you might wonder, “How often do flights get delayed or canceled?”

First, it’s important to know that about 25,000 flights are usually scheduled to depart from U.S. airports daily.

“It is ‘normal’ to expect around 1 to 2 percent of flights to be canceled,” said Gary Leff, author of ViewFromTheWing.com. He added that around 20 to 25 percent of flights are late by at least 15 minutes, though it’s harder to track the range of how delayed flights are.

Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge, an air travel assistance service (including urgent help when flights are canceled or delayed), said that about 1 percent is typical. So, if 1 percent of flights were axed, that would translate to roughly 250 canceled flights nationwide.

Monday, June 26, saw the highest number of cancellations (so far) during this meltdown: 2,252 voided flights, which amounted to a little over 9 percent of all U.S. flights that day, assuming that there were 25,000 flights scheduled. Of those flights, roughly 1,200 flew into or out of one of the three big New York area airports. The issues there cascaded throughout the country.

“It could be that the airplane starts in New York where the weather is bad, and then it’s supposed to go to, say, Atlanta and then Fort Lauderdale,” Snyder said. “There may be no weather issues in Atlanta or Fort Lauderdale, but the airplane may be stuck in New York. The same can be the case if the crew is coming from New York. There may be a plane in Atlanta, but without the crew, it won’t go anywhere. There are crew reserves in hubs to help if it’s a one-off issue, but when it’s a major disruption, there aren’t enough crew reserves to cover everything.”

The mass delays and cancellations cause additional frustrations for travelers: In many cases, they haven’t been able to retrieve their luggage and have had to sleep overnight on airline-issued cots in the terminal. To those who experienced Southwest Airlines’ epic operational meltdown over the 2022 holiday season (when Southwest canceled more than 1,000 flights, or 29 percent of its schedule, due to weather and operational failure), this might feel like déjà vu.

Granted, the past 18 months haven’t been good for on-time arrivals in general. In 2022, 2.7 percent of all U.S. domestic flights were canceled—the highest rates in the past decade, not counting 2020. Another 23 percent of all domestic flights were delayed, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Already in 2023, the United States has seen nearly 27,000 cancellations (which amounts to 1.66 percent of all flights).

“It could take a little while to untangle this problem,” Snyder said.

What to do if your flight is canceled

Should you find yourself caught up in the mayhem, the first thing you should do is start researching alternative forms of travel (which you can do while you wait in line to speak with an agent or while on hold with the airline) as seats may be hard to come by and those who are proactive will be rewarded. Know that if your flight is canceled and you still want to travel, airlines are required by the Department of Transportation to rebook you for free on the next available flight. And if you’ve been canceled or severely delayed (more than three hours), you can ask the airline to move you to a flight on a competing airline. They’re not required by law to do it, but often will if there aren’t many other options. If you’re no longer interested in flying, you are entitled to a full refund in the form of your original payment.

How to avoid travel disruptions

If you’re looking to avoid a potential headache for future flights, there are a few things you can do to stack the deck in your favor.

Booking directly with the airline, as opposed to through a third party, can be enormously helpful if you need to change your flight, because you can work with the airline directly, which is often faster. Using the airlines app is also useful, as you’ll be able to see the full display of flights available through your carrier and can potentially move yourself to an alternative flight that works with your schedule.

Choosing the first flight of the day is also a good idea, because delays tend to pile up as the day goes on, and if your flight is canceled, there are more options for getting you to your destination on the same day.

It’s also a good idea to book nonstop to minimize potential problems (such as missing a connection due to a late arrival), but if you can’t avoid a layover, opt for a longer one, as it will provide a buffer if issues do arise.

Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).
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