PWM security
Travelers enter the security checkpoint June 24 at Portland International Jetport, which expects to set a three-month record for passengers this summer. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Portland International Jetport is bracing for the biggest three-month travel period in its history amid an airline industry epidemic of delays and cancellations.

In June through August of 2018, the previous record year, there were 835,000 airplane seats in the Portland market, compared with 876,000 this summer – an increase of almost 5 percent in available seats.

That’s assuming the airlines fill the flights – which seems inevitable.

“All indications are (they will),” Zach Sundquist, assistant director at PWM said last week. “People are buying airline tickets and traveling domestically. We could very well be looking at an all-time record summer for the Jetport.”

But airlines are also facing the same challenges many industries have been experiencing, particularly staffing shortages, Sundquist said. As a result, PWM has had many flights canceled or delayed as ripple effects spread from the nation’s larger airports and airline hubs.

His advice for travelers, especially those flying around the Fourth of July holiday: “Pack some patience.”

Airlines under pressure

Caitlin Worthen and her two sons had no issues on their return to Portland last Friday, but their trip to St. Louis wasn’t free of complications. Their planned weeklong vacation was trimmed to five days because of two canceled flights.

“Luckily it was for leisure and not a wedding or something,” Worthen said. 

Worthen and her sons were supposed to leave on June 17, but the flight was canceled. She tried to change the time of their new flight the next day, which cost $500, and that one was canceled too. Finally, she said, they left on Sunday, June 19.

Steve Fontaine
Steve Fontaine called himself lucky after not experiencing any flight delays on the way to Portland on June 24. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Cyndi Chase had a similar experience trying to get to Portland from Kansas City. She was supposed to leave Wednesday, then Thursday, Chase said, before finally getting out on Friday.

“We were fortunate,” Chase said, that they could return home during the delays, rather than having to stay in the airport.

Airlines have been under increasing pressure as summer approached. A combination of weather, Juneteenth, and Father’s Day led to a surge of cancellations and delays on the weekend of June 18-20; on the following Sunday, June 26, there were close to 7,000 flights delayed across the country with 867 cancellations, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.

Delta Airlines announced at the end of May that it would reduce flights by about 100 a day to adjust to the challenges. The airline cited COVID-19 as a reason for unexpected staff shortages, but also an increase in demand for travel, driven by pent-up demand from the pandemic.

Mallory Clarke
Professional bowler Mallory Clarke prepares to check in at PWM on June 24. She said she keeps her fingers crossed that she and her bowling balls will arrive at the same time. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

There’s no sign the urge to travel will slow, either. The Transportation Security Administration said more than 2 million people cleared airport checkpoints each day since June 4, and 2.4 million people flew on June 24 and June 26.

Ripple effect

Even though things were running smoothly for last Friday at PWM, cancellations and delays were still on the minds of travelers.

“Oh, hell yeah,” arriving passenger Steve Fontaine said when asked if he was concerned when he booked his flight. He flew into Portland for a celebration of life, and there was no room for error: If his Friday flight had been canceled, he would’ve had to miss the event Saturday.

But Fontaine said there were “no complications, the plane was full. I guess I’m lucky.”

Luck was a common theme for other travelers, including professional bowler Mallory Clarke, who was preparing for a departure.

“We have to cross our fingers,” Clarke said, “I haven’t run into any issues yet, but if I lose these (bowling balls) that would be a problem.”

Delta takes off
A Delta Air Lines flight bound for New York’s LaGuardia Airport takes off from the Portland International Jetport on June 24. Flight cancellations can mean increased demand for lodging, rental cars and other businesses that serve travelers. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The uncertainty about air travel is being felt at businesses near the Jetport, too. At the Hilton Garden Inn on Jetport Boulevard, airline flight cancellations translate into more bookings.

Vernon Briggs, regional director of sales and marketing for the hotel chain, said that’s a trend they’ve seen over the last few months.

“I think the airlines are going to have these struggles all year … cancellations throughout,” Briggs said. Fortunately for the hotel, he added, they have enough staff to keep up with the additional business.

Sundquist said PWM helps to support travelers during delays by reaching out to other businesses, too – notifying bus lines or rental car agencies, for example, to be prepared for increased demand because of flight cancellations.

Whether the luck continues for travelers flying through PWM remains to be seen: Airport Director Paul Bradbury said July activity is typically topped by what the Jetport experiences in August.

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