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LONDON (AP) — Polls opened Thursday in Britain for two special elections that could deliver a new blow to scandal-tainted Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Wakefield in northern England and the southwestern constituency of Tiverton and Honiton are both electing replacements for Conservative lawmakers who resigned in disgrace.

One was convicted of sexual assault; the other was caught looking at pornography in the House of Commons chamber — an episode he explained by saying he was searching for pictures of tractors on his phone.

Defeat in either district would be a setback for the prime minister’s party. Losing both would increase jitters among restive Conservatives who already worry the ebullient but erratic and divisive Johnson is no longer an electoral asset.

“For the Conservatives to lose one by-election on Thursday might be regarded as unfortunate,” polling expert John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde wrote in the Independent newspaper. “However, to lose two might look like much more than carelessness – but a sign of a government that is at risk of losing its electoral footing.”

Johnson was 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away at a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda as voters went to the polls.

The electoral tests come as Britain faces the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, with Russia’s war in Ukraine squeezing supplies of energy and food staples at a time of soaring consumer demand while the coronavirus pandemic recedes.

Polls suggest the Tiverton race is neck-and-neck between the Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, said residents were “fed up of Boris Johnson’s lies and neglect.”

“Families are facing soaring petrol bills and food prices, and this government’s only answer is to hammer them with constant tax rises,” Davey said.

Johnson won a big majority in a 2019 general election by keeping the Conservatives’ traditional voters — affluent, older and concentrated in southern England — and winning new ones in poorer, post-industrial northern towns where many residents felt overlooked by governments for decades,

Thursday’s elections are a test on both fronts. Rural Tiverton and Honiton has voted Conservative for generations, while Wakefield is a northern district that the Tories won in 2019 from the left-of-center Labour Party.

Opinion polls suggest Labour is likely to regain Wakefield, which would be a boost to a party that has been out of office nationally since 2010. Labour leader Keir Starmer said victory there “could be the birthplace of the next Labour government.”

Even if the Conservatives lose both seats, Johnson retains a large majority in Parliament. But his crumbling authority among his own lawmakers would erode further.

Allegations about his judgment and ethics have buffeted the prime minister for months, culminating in a scandal over parties held in government buildings during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns.

Johnson was one of 83 people fined by police for attending the parties, making him the first prime minister found to have broken the law while in office. A civil servant’s report on the “partygate” scandal said Johnson must bear responsibility for “failures of leadership and judgment” that created a culture of rule-breaking in government.

He survived a no-confidence vote by his own party this month but was left weakened after 41% of Conservative lawmakers voted to remove him. Johnson could face another rebellion in the coming months.

Polls in the two districts close at 10 p.m. (2100GMT), with results expected early Friday.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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Fourth of July travel surge puts airlines — and passengers — to the test

Travelers at LaGuardia Airport in New York on June 30, 2022.Leslie Josephs | CNBC

The Fourth of July holiday weekend will put airlines to the test after a messy spring angered travelers and drew sharp criticism from Washington.

Already this year, the rate of flight cancellations and delays in June is higher than before the pandemic as a result of bad weather and staffing shortages. And airlines and federal officials have been scrambling to ease frustrations ahead of the busy holiday weekend.

This week, Delta said travelers can change flights for free, without paying a difference in fare, if they can travel outside of the busy July 1-4 weekend, as late as July 8. JetBlue launched attendance bonuses to flight attendants this spring to ensure solid staffing. American Airlines regional airline Envoy is offering pilots triple pay to pick up extra shifts throughout July.

And carriers including Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines recently trimmed their schedules to give themselves more wiggle room.

The moves come as passenger counts near pre-pandemic levels, while fares have soared. About 2.6 million people could depart U.S. airports each day of the weekend, according to estimates from the fare-tracker Hopper.

Travelers have largely stomached the higher fares after being cooped up for two years in the pandemic. That's been a boon to carriers that are more than making up for a surge in fuel costs. But flying has been a headache for many passengers.

Nearly 176,000 flights arrived at least 15 minutes late between June 1 and June 29. That represents more than 23% of scheduled flights, according to flight-tracker FlightAware. And more than 20,000 − nearly 3% − were cancelled out.

That's up from 20% of flights being delayed and 2% being cancelled in the same period in 2019.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have sparred over who's to blame. Airlines have blamed the disruptions on bad weather, their own staffing shortages and staffing problems at the government's air traffic control.

The FAA, for its part, has called out moves by airlines to let go of tens of thousands of workers through buyouts, despite getting $54 billion in taxpayer payroll aid during the pandemic as a part of a rescue package that prohibited layoffs.

Political pressure on airlines is rising. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has repeatedly urged airlines to ensure that they are ready after the recent spate of cancellations and delays, including one that affected a flight the secretary planned to take.

Lawmakers have also pushed for more scrutiny of airlines. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) this week said airlines should be fined $55,000 per passenger for cancelling flights they cannot staff.

On Thursday, the FAA's acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other top officials held a call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency's own use of overtime to staff its facilities, traffic and routing plans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call was in addition to regular planning meetings with airlines.


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