Yu Su, a university computer researcher, found himself stranded last Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina (southeast of the United States) when his connecting flight to return home to Ohio (central) failed. never left.

The company canceled its 8:30 p.m. flight only after midnight, after numerous postponements that created “the illusion of hope”, said Yu Su, to whom no clear explanation of the problem was given.

Setbacks like his are common these days in the United States, with newspapers headlining the “chaos” of airports ahead of the July 4 weekend, when the country celebrates its independence.

The problems are such that they have drawn the attention of authorities in Washington.

Aircraft tracking sites report the cancellation of several hundred flights every day, the delay of thousands more.

– Is there a pilot on the plane? –

If federal aid has allowed American airlines not to lay off staff en masse during the pandemic, thousands of employees – encouraged to retire or leave by their employers – left the sector when planes remained grounded. the tarmac.

Compared to the pre-pandemic period, airlines in the United States employ 15% fewer staff. But have to handle nearly 90% of pre-2020 passenger volume, according to analysts at consultancy firm Third Bridge.

For Crystal Fricker, whose flight to Indianapolis (center) was canceled an hour before leaving Raleigh, North Carolina, it was the lack of staff that was lacking.

Unable to find alternative flights for her and her two colleagues, the group drove nearly 11 hours to arrive on time for the day’s meetings.

“Almost every flight I’ve taken has been delayed,” said the head of a seed company.

According to Peter McNally of Third Bridge, the lack of pilots is the most acute problem.

“There is no short-term solution,” he told AFP. “The problem becomes much more pronounced during these seasonal peaks.”

Airlines say they are working to fix the problem, stepping up recruitment drives for pilots and other personnel and cutting capacity this summer by 15% from what was originally planned.

While acknowledging that the lack of pilots remains a challenge, the companies also point to other factors including the weather, staff absences due to Covid-19, and the lack of air traffic controllers at some airports.

– With red balls –

Faced with these attempts at justification, the air regulatory authority (FAA) rejected some of the arguments, saying it had added air traffic controllers in high demand areas.

“People expect when they buy an airline ticket to get to their destination safely, efficiently, reliably, and inexpensively,” the FAA said.

“After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief to help companies avoid widespread layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve to have their expectations met,” the authority continued.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a figure of the American left, fired red balls at the sector by denouncing the chaos and the “outrageously high” prices, and by demanding fines for delays and cancellations.

In a message Thursday to the airline’s regular customers, Delta boss Ed Bastian acknowledged current levels of disruption “unacceptable,” but said recruiting efforts would alleviate those issues.

The situation “is not going to change overnight, but we are on track for a stable recovery” of activity, he wrote.

United Airlines, meanwhile, expects nearly 5.2 million passengers in the July 4 period alone, a 24% increase from 2021, and a return to 92% of pre-pandemic levels.

Like United and Delta, American Airlines is in the midst of recruiting pilots and other personnel. The company hired 800 new pilots this year, its boss Robert Isom said in early June.

And according to several media, its regional subsidiary Envoy Air is offering its pilots to triple their pay for their journeys next month, in order to avoid disruption as much as possible.