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Airlines cancel hundreds of weekend flights as thunderstorms sweep through Florida

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A Southwest Airlines jet sits at a gate at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2021.
Joe Skipper | Reuters

Airlines canceled hundreds of weekend flights and thousands more were delayed as thunderstorms in Florida slowed traffic in one of the country’s top travel destinations during spring break.

More than 5,900 U.S. flights were delayed and 1,930 were canceled on Saturday, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.

Thunderstorms are especially challenging for airlines because they are harder to predict and plan for compared with other systems like winter storms and hurricanes, during which airlines often cancel flights hours if not days in advance.

Disruptions due to storms tend to cascade because crews and planes are left out of position for their assignments. Airlines are currently scrambling to staff up to handle the travel demand that surged as Covid cases declined this winter. Staffing shortages worsened flight disruptions last year.

Southwest Airlines canceled 520 flights, or 14% of its Saturday schedule, plus 1,512 delays or 43% of scheduled flights, according to FlightAware. About 10% of Southwest’s Sunday flights were canceled and 7% were delayed.

Before the storms sparked delays in Florida, the airline had briefly paused departures early in the day to perform checks on a backend system that it had reset as part of regular maintenance overnight. Those systems are used for tasks including pre-departure paperwork.

“Our top priorities are protecting our Crew network, ensuring Crews have hotel rooms, and minimizing the effects felt by our Customers as we work to avoid disruptions to their spring break travel plans,” Southwest said in a message to flight attendants. ”These situations are never easy, and we thank you for your patience and perseverance as we work our way through this challenging weekend.”

The airline waived fare differences for affected customers so they can rebook themselves online without waiting on the phone, a spokesman said.

Air traffic controllers had slowed or paused inbound traffic altogether at several Florida airports Saturday, including Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and Tampa International Airport. Close to a third of Orlando departures were canceled and 42% were delayed.

“Yesterday’s weather in around Florida and resulting [air traffic control] initiatives impacted our operations with most northbound and southbound routes through and to Florida affected, American Airlines said in a statement. “We’re recovering from those disruptions today.”

Delta Air Lines said that the Florida weather also impacted its operation on Saturday. About a fifth of each carrier’s Saturday schedules were delayed, or roughly 600 flights apiece.

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