Business travel is on the upswing, but these airports have been hamstrung by delays and cancellations

Passengers are taking to the airways after planes remained all but grounded in 2020. So what is the state of business travel and are delays and cancellations derailing plans?

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After airlines remained all but grounded for much of 2020, travelers are starting to take to the skies at a high clip. On July 26, more than 2.1 million travelers passed through TSA checkpoints, according to TSA data. For perspective, that's triple the traveler throughput for the same day in 2020, but markedly lower than same-day totals in 2019 (2.6 million).

But the return to flight hasn't gone exactly swimmingly and recent reports of flight delays and cancellations have warranted scrutiny from Congress. In July, Senator Cantwell sent letters to the heads of multiple airlines to get to the bottom of recent reports about flight delays and cancellations "creating havoc and frustrating consumers."

So, is business travel back? Well, it depends on who you ask...

Business travel: Planes, gains and automobiles

The Dunwoody metro area located 20-minutes north of Atlanta is an interesting business travel bellwether of sorts. In 2019, business travelers represented 61% of Dunwoody visitors. Last April, the occupancy rate in the area was at 7%, according to Steven Schumacher, director of sales at Discover Dunwoody.

In general, Schumacher said hotels in the area are starting to see a resurgence in business travel, noting that this uptick has been "much earlier than expected" and area hotel partners have seen a gradual business travel increase following the Memorial Day weekend.

"Overall, our destination is seeing our weekend business plateau (they really couldn't get much better with 80%+ total occupancy for the destination on Fri/Sat), so our overall weekly growth is coming from that Mon-Thurs business," he said.

Dunwoody is currently seeing a "weekend business plateau" with 80% and higher occupancy rates Monday through Friday, according to Schumacher, with its "overall weekly growth" coming from the Monday through Thursday business.

While business travel stays appear to be on the uptick, Schumacher said the area hasn't "seen much impact" on business related to the recent reports of flight delays and cancellations, noting that the area has a high percentage of "drive market guests" who travel to the area via car from nearby cities.

"Without a doubt, business travel is on the rebound," said Ralph Colunga, travel and expense solutions thought leader at SAP Concur.

Citing a company study, Colunga explained that 68% of business travelers and travel managers are "pushing for a return to business travel" and cited GBTA data, which shows that 40% of companies had already resumed "non-essential domestic business travel."

Based on company data focused on airline seating and capacity, John Grant, chief analyst at OAG, said the company has seen "no evidence of any recovery in the business market," adding that this uptick would be "unexpected" since its "peak vacation season."

"The earliest real signs [of a recovery] are likely to be in September when corporate demand normally picks up, but it remains a 'wait and see' moment," he said.

Flight delays and cancellations

In the last week, a string of cancellations among top carriers has led to headaches for travelers. As has been widely reported, Spirit airlines canceled hundreds of flights in the last few days. On Tuesday alone, American Airlines canceled approximately 300 "by the middle of the afternoon on Tuesday," per The New York Times, following additional cancellations on Monday.

The reason behind the flight delays and cancellations vary widely, with reports of labor shortages, fuel shortages in some areas and potential strikes and more.

On July 16, Senator Maria Cantwell sent letters to the CEOs of six airlines in light of recent "reports of workforce shortages, flight cancellations, and delays, creating havoc and frustrating consumers as more Americans resume travel," reads a portion of a press release from the senator's office.

So, how do recent flight delays and cancellations compare to normal typical travel seasons on average?

"We have been looking at this quite closely using our real time database and over a rolling one-month period there is no evidence of an abnormal level of delays and cancellations," Grant said.

"For most carriers it has been better than previous years. There have been a few days of higher than normal – and they have been well reported on by others – but the general picture is actually quite good," he added.

Airports with the most delays and cancellations

Since mid-June, an FAA spokesperson said total flight "delays in the system are down nearly 60 percent from the pre-pandemic baseline of 2017-2019," adding that "cancellations are consistent with the baseline cancellations" during this time period.

Overall, they said "significant delays and cancellations" are most commonly caused by weather.

"Busy airports, airports in areas that experience thunderstorms in the summer and snowstorms in the winter, and airports in congested airspace generally see the highest number of delays," they explained.

In the last six weeks, the most delayed U.S. airports include Denver International, O'Hare International, Dallas-Ft. Worth International, McCarran International and Newark Liberty International, according to the FAA spokesperson. The top airports for cancellations during this time period were Dallas-Ft. Worth International, Denver International, Newark Liberty, O'Hare and Charlotte Douglas International, they added.

This information reflects similar data illustrated on FlightAware's so-called Misery Map that tracks daily flight delays and cancellations. As of Thursday morning, the top-listed airports on the Misery Map include Dallas Ft. Worth, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Chicago O'Hare, Newark Liberty and JFK.

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By R. Dallon Adams

R. Dallon Adams is a journalist originally from Louisville, Kentucky. His previous work includes a wide spectrum of beats and formats ranging from tech-savvy urban planning initiatives to hands-on gadget reviews.