The U.S. Cancelled Over 200,000 Flights in 2023 — Here's Why Everyone Is Happy About It

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With so many consumer protections in place, flying might actually be fun again.
Updated May 8, 2024
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After a year when it felt like there were more cancellations than flights, you’d think people would take anything but a plane for a getaway. The opposite is true. The data came in for 2023, and guess what? People were flying at pre-pandemic levels. Not only were they thrilled to be up in the air, but flight cancelations were at a ten-year low. Simply put, a low flight cancelation rate means that you’re more than 90% able to make that trip without any ancillary headaches.

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When did flying become an awful experience?

Let’s go back a bit. During lockdown, hardly anyone left home, let alone travel anywhere. With only a few flyers, the airlines took a step back, put many employees on leave, and flew only a tiny percentage of their fleet. When it became safe to fly again, even with high ticket sales, airlines dragged their metaphorical feet instead of prepping to meet demand.

Of all the airlines in America canceling flights in 2022, the worst offender was Southwest Airlines. Due to outdated, bad tech, multiple storms, and a smaller staff, the company canceled 16,900 flights and left over 2 million passengers stuck in airports nationwide for days. During the holidays. Peak travel season.

Now, here’s the thing: in the past, the aviation industry had a much softer attitude toward travel issues. They metaphorically shrugged their shoulders when it came to struck-off flights. When canceled flights occurred in the past, they would get a small fine at the most and then move on.

An expensive lesson

The Secretary of U.S. Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, putting it mildly, took a stand against poor customer service. Using Southwest as an example, the department levied the largest fine in aviation history against the company. In addition to having to fork over $600 million dollars in customer refunds, they got an additional fine of $140 million dollars. 

In one year, Southwest lost a combined total of $740 million. Southwest became an example of what not to do. That might make it difficult for them to offer deals that make it easy for you to save while shopping for travel deals. 

Southwest’s fine wasn’t the only measure to correct bad behavior. Buttigieg and his department increased fines against airlines for delaying refunds and unlawfully keeping passengers stuck on the tarmac for hours.

The Department of Transportation created the Airline Customer Service Dashboard. It spells out every airline’s legal commitment to free family seating, controllable delays, and cancellations. The aviation industry is now toeing the line between fines and tighter regulations. After all, a for-profit company wants to make a profit, not accrue fines.

So, when the Department of Transportation recently stated that 2023 experienced below a rate of 1.2% canceled flights compared to 2022’s 2.3% canceled flights, there was much rejoicing. It meant that out of the 16.3 million flights last year, only about 200,000 flights weren’t completed. Parsing out that information means fewer flight cancellations will occur in the coming year.

What to do if your flight is canceled

If your flight is canceled, immediately contact the airline by app, phone, or, if at the airport, in person. Airlines are legally bound to refund you and they should be able to provide plenty of information about what to expect. Some airlines might have booked you on a separate flight without your knowledge so it's important to know what the plan is and what your options are.  

If you do get a refund, that refund can include the flight, taxes, baggage, and other ancillary fees. Airlines have to refund a credit card payment in seven days; cash payment refunds take longer. So you might actually benefit from using a top travel credit card whenever you're buying a plane ticket, just in case of a cancellation.

The airline also might pay for a hotel if you need a hotel. Before you book that room, check in with the airline to find out what hotels they may work for canceled and delayed flights. 

Bottom Line<

The year 2022 was a horror show for flight cancellations. Due to tighter regulations and stiffer fines, airlines are ensuring that flights will happen. A less than 1.2% canceled flight rate, obtained in 2023, is practically nothing in comparison and should be looked at as a bright spot. We will see if the trend continues into 2024. 


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Author Details

PJ Gach PJ Gach is a professional writer who has over a decade of experience covering the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle beats. Her writing credits include Shop TODAY, GoBankingRates, SPY.com, Reader's Digest, The New York Post, Rolling Stone, and more.

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