The US aviation industry celebrated its busiest year ever for air travel in 2023 with 16.3 million flights and the lowest rate of flight cancellations in at least a decade according to data released by the country’s Department of Transportation (DOT). 

The DOT said 2023 saw a cancellation rate for scheduled flights of below 1.2%, almost half of the 2.3% seen in 2022 and only 2016 recording a rate with 1% of 2023.

Notably, the Christmas and New Year holiday period marked a much smoother time for the industry, with a rate of 0.8%, compared to the high number of delays and cancellations seen in 2022, where cancellations reached 8.2% between 17 December and 1 January.

A bar graph showing flight cancellation rates in the US over the last decade, with highs of 2.4% in 2014 and 2.3% in 2022 and lows of 1.2% in 2016 and 2023
The cancellation rate for 2023 marked a significant improvement on 2022, which saw one of the highest rates in a decade. Credit: US Department of Transportation

A successful December holiday period continued a strong finish to the end of the year for the industry, which welcomed the busiest day ever at US airports during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, recording more than 2.9 million passengers passing through a US airport on 26 November. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the numbers reflect a major improvement in the “flexibility and fluidity” of US airspace, he said: “We’ve been pushing the airlines hard, especially after what we saw about a year and a half ago, where even on days where the weather was fine, there were unacceptable levels of cancellations and disruptions. 

“We pressed them on realistic scheduling, we pressed them on staffing, and we made sure that we took steps that were under our own responsibility, especially with things that the FAA could have some control over like improving the routes that aircraft are allowed to fly on.” 

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Buttigieg’s claims on the DOT’s efforts to push airlines on staffing issues can be seen in practice in the department’s data on the causes of flight delays, with the percentage of overall delay minutes in 2023 attributed to other/staffing issues reducing by more than half compared to 2022. 

Additionally, the department has also been taking action on the perceived failures of some airlines in 2022, with Southwest recently given a $140m fine by the DOT for failing to properly care for customers affected by the almost 17,000 flights cancelled by the airline in December 2022 during a period of large storms. 

However, despite the successes claimed by the DOT and Secretary Buttigieg, the US’ airspace management has also been criticised through 2023, with some airlines claiming they had to reduce flights at some airports over a shortage of air traffic control staff, with the FAA currently employing 10% fewer controllers then it did a decade ago in 2012.