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Labor Day weekend could mean more headaches and frustration for fliers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Today is getaway day for a lot of people traveling for the Labor Day holiday weekend. And the number of people flying is expected to be near pre-pandemic levels. That means you will probably find long lines, crowded gates and packed planes. And airline pilots are warning travelers that there could be more delays and cancellations. They've been picketing at airports today to call on airline management to fix the operational problems that have plagued air travel all summer long. We're going to check in now with NPR's David Schaper, who is at O'Hare Airport in Chicago right this very second. Hey, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So can you just describe the scene there? Like, how busy is it? Are there any problems yet?

SCHAPER: Yeah. You know, it's very busy. There was heavy traffic heading into the airport, long lines at check-in counters. The line for the security checkpoint was outside of the security area, so it was actually creating some very congested foot traffic in the area that I'm in. You know, I talked to one traveler who was upset because she had been waiting over a half an hour for a wheelchair, likely because of short staffing for wheelchair attendants. And she was concerned that she might miss her flight. But another traveler I talked to, who was on his way to Las Vegas, thought as busy as it is here, things are running more smoothly than he had expected, although I think a lot of people's expectations are not all that high now.

CHANG: Right.

SCHAPER: But flights are on time here for the most part. That's not how it's been much of the summer, though. And I talked to aviation consumer advocate Bill McGee about that. And he thinks air travelers might be seeing more of the same this weekend.

BILL MCGEE: The fact is we've never seen this level of what the industry calls flight disruptions, which is, you know, extensive delays and cancellations. And, you know, you couple that with all the unpaid refunds. It's just been a miserable summer for air travel.

CHANG: Ain't that right? Well, we mentioned the picketing pilots are warning people of possible delays, more cancellations. What is their central message?

SCHAPER: Well, it kind of depends on which airline the pilots fly for and what specific problems they've encountered at that airline. For pilots at American, the big issue has been scheduling. And the pilots say they feel that they're stretched too thin and pushed to the limit. And the number of fatigue complaints is up substantially. Other pilots at other airlines want better working conditions and more rest between flights, too. Most of the airlines have had these operational problems due to scheduling too many flights - more flights than they can actually staff due to a shortage of pilots and other employees. And they say that's what's at the heart of all these delays and cancellations this summer. Captain Roger Phillips is a 767 pilot for United Airlines and spokesman for the pilots union here.

ROGER PHILLIPS: We want this fixed. We want the traveling public to be able to have a seamless experience in the air. And we're here to make that happen as quickly as possible.

SCHAPER: Now, many of the pilots union contracts are expiring, too. And so they're doing this informational picketing on their days off to try to pressure the airlines to also come to the bargaining table.

CHANG: Well, in terms of travelers, I understand that the Department of Transportation has a new tool for air travelers so they can see, like, what they're owed from the airline, which might come in handy for people this weekend. Can you tell us about that?

SCHAPER: Yeah. It's a new website, an online dashboard that more clearly explains what the airlines are required to do for you under the law when your flight is delayed or canceled. And it also provides side-by-side comparisons on what customer services they'll provide when flight disruptions are their fault, like which ones will provide meal vouchers or cash if your flight is delayed more than three hours and whether they'll pay for a hotel room if you're stranded overnight.

CHANG: That is NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper. Thank you so much, David.

SCHAPER: Oh, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENNY KRAVITZ SONG, "FLY AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.