Flight delays: SFO passengers stuck for days and it's not over yet


Bad weather on the East Coast was easing but airline staffing shortages and stacked up delays and cancelations impacted passengers at SFO overnight and stretching into Thursday morning, as many travelers waited in long lines to rebook flights and make connections. 

Dozens of sleepy passengers had been up for hours and piles of suitcases growing near the baggage claim. One gentleman from Taiwan told KTVU he has been stuck at SFO since Tuesday. 

One woman decided to cancel her flight and rent a car to drive over 2,500 miles back home to Cleveland, Ohio.

"We will get there at the same time if we tried to get an airline flight," a woman named Ginny told KTVU Thursday morning. Ginny was flying back home from Hawaii and when she landed at SFO to board a connecting flight, she was told it had been canceled. 

"There's not another available until at least Saturday or Sunday," Ginny said. 

Their stories were just a snapshot of the travel nightmare that plagued travelers across the country. Especially impacted are those who are flying United, of which SFO is a hub airport.

But their worries aren't over yet.

The delays could get worse in the coming days. Thursday was expected to be the busiest day of the Fourth of July holiday weekend with more than 50,000 flights scheduled.

Airports in Chicago, Denver and Newark, New Jersey - all hubs for United - were seeing the most delays on Thursday, according to FlightAware.

By mid-afternoon on the East Coast, United had canceled more than 400 flights, the bulk of the roughly 500 cancelations toted up by FlightAware. The carrier was poised to lead all U.S. airlines in cancelations for a sixth straight day. 

United CEO Scott Kirby blamed the airline's struggles in Newark on a shortage of air traffic controllers in the New York City area. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed back against the criticism while conceding that a key Federal Aviation Administration facility in New York is severely understaffed.

"United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through. They have really been struggling this week, even relative to other U.S. airlines," Buttigieg told media outlets. "But where we do agree is that there need to be more resources for air traffic control."

The FAA plans to hire 3,300 controllers over two years, but they won't be ready to help this summer, much less this weekend.

Adding to the mess, Friday is the deadline for airlines to complete upgrades to their equipment to avoid interference from the new 5G wireless systems.

American, United, Southwest, Alaska and Frontier say all their planes have been retrofitted with new radio altimeters - those are devices that measure the plane's height above the ground - and they do not expect disruptions due to 5G service.

However, Delta Air Lines has about 190 planes in its fleet of more than 900 that have not been updated because it can't get enough altimeters from its supplier. Delta says it will schedule those planes to avoid landing in poor visibility while it works to upgrade them through the summer.

The issue affects several types of single-aisle planes that Delta uses on routes within the United States, including all its Airbus A220s and most of its Airbus A319 and A320 jets. 

Smaller airlines that operate regional flights could also be affected by the radio interference issue, as could flights operated to the United States by foreign carriers. 

In San Francisco, frustrations were running high after some passengers had been stuck for days, not just hours. 

"We arrived from Sydney, Australia at 7 a.m. this morning and when we got here, we were moved to six different gates," said Nicole Hough, who was traveling with her daughter Piper to Nashville for an Irish dancing competition. 

Hough says after waiting more than 10 hours, they were told their flight was canceled. 

"They turn around and say it's canceled because they were missing one crew member," Hough added.

Many passengers said they had been stranded overnight.

"We are overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, sad, like, just overwhelmed right now," said Reeta Cremin, a traveler from Finland who was heading to meet family in Hawaii. She says their flight was canceled Tuesday night.

"The aircraft arrived, but then they told us they were missing staff people," Cremin added. 

Her family was told all flights were booked, so they will have to go on a flight next week, and will miss their relatives.

On Wednesday evening, nearly 5,800 U.S. flights were delayed and 1,000 or more flights were canceled, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.

That created a domino effect that rippled through the nation, as aircraft and crews were caught out of position. Planes packed ahead of the Fourth of July holiday had few seats to spare.

"The problem is if you miss a flight or something is canceled, it's even harder to get on something now," said Bill Zwolinski, a United passenger.

Storms on the East Coast caused some of the delays. The weather forced the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily ground planes bound for Boston.

On Thursday there was a break in the weather, but it won't last long enough to ease the travel mess.

Scattered showers and thunderstorms may arrive later Thursday in the Northeast, and storms were also forecast farther south along the East Coast through Saturday. The West is under threat of unstable weather for the next several days.

As airlines nationwide are struggling to rebook hundreds of travelers, passengers are paying the price.

"Everything was closed in the airport because it was night. We were without water because we were without luggage. I still can't find my luggage," said Jasmin Hunt, a United passenger.

"We're going to try to rent a car and just drive home... it's just 10 hours," said Mark Falois, of Boise, Idaho who was waiting in line with his family.


Nationwide flight disruptions strand thousands of travelers

Thousands of travelers across the country are stuck at airports due to delayed or cancelled flights.