Air travel in summer: airlines are the main source of flight delays

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Airline executives, amid a barrage of criticism from the public, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have sought to blame the blame for flying problems this summer on the country’s air traffic control system. But federal data shows that the airlines themselves are the main reason for delays in recent months and are responsible for an unusually high share of cancellations.

The figures, reported by the airlines and published this past week by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, also confirms the experiences of many passengers: 2022 has been a tough year for air travel. Federal transportation officials say 88,161 flights have been canceled through May – the second highest number in the first five months of a year since 1988, surpassed only in 2020 when the pandemic emerged.

Rising flight delays and cancellations – stemming from growing demand in an industry that has laid off tens of thousands of employees during the pandemic – has prompted unusual rounds of finger-pointing from the public starting this spring . It came as the country’s airports recorded their busiest days of the pandemic era, prompting unequipped airlines to increase worker wage incentives and cut hours.

Industry criticism of air traffic controllers drew rebuttals from the Federal Aviation Administration and Buttigieg, reminding passengers of their refund rights when airlines cancel flights or subject passengers to extended delays.

While air traffic control officials acknowledge their own challenges in the pandemic era, the data suggests those issues have not played a significant role in airlines’ struggles this year.

According to figures from the Ministry of Transport, air carriers were directly responsible for about 41% of delays through May, a figure comparable to last year but higher than before the pandemic. Late planes – another issue mostly attributable to airlines – accounted for an additional 37% of delays.

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Issues with the country’s airspace, such as congestion, bad weather or staffing of air traffic control facilities, accounted for 17% of delays – the lowest level since authorities began track data in 2004. Severe weather is its own category and accounted for about 5 percent of delays.

As for cancellations, issues attributed to airlines were cited in 38% of cases, the highest rate since 2012. But the majority of cancellations involve circumstances beyond the carriers’ control. The weather was cited in 55% of cases. Domestic airspace issues, such as those involving air traffic control, accounted for 7% of cancellations.

Buttigieg said there were signs that air travel was becoming more reliable, although cancellation rates continued to hover above acceptable levels.

“What I have emphasized to the airlines is that we want to support them when they do the right thing. We are also there to enforce the rules when they are not,” he said recently. “Whenever there is something under FAA control, they will work on it, but I want to be very, very clear here: it doesn’t explain the majority of the delays.”

Experts said the dispute between the airlines and air traffic control likely reflected industry executives’ desire to spread blame after months of difficulties. Last week, senior industry officials signaled they were ready to put the dispute aside, adopting a more conciliatory tone.

In an earnings call on Thursday, United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby said he had personally apologized to Buttigieg after an internal company memo appeared to blame air traffic controllers for many late flights from the carrier.

“I think the whole system is strained,” Kirby said. “There are tight squads everywhere, and that’s part of it. This is not unique to the FAA. It’s everything in the whole economy, and certainly a lot of things that affect aviation are tight. »

Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President for Legislative and Regulatory Policy to the Airlines for America trade group, added, “We are really not interested in engaging in a finger-pointing exercise. We focus on collaboration and try to make sure that we are all focused on the things that will improve operational reliability.

There are signs that the labor issues that have plagued the industry are improving. Southwest Airlines employs more people than before the pandemic. Delta Air Lines officials said this month the company had hired 18,000 people since 2021 and its workforce was 95% of pre-pandemic levels.

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Airlines and the FAA communicate regularly to manage the country’s skies. Air traffic controllers and airline managers meet virtually every afternoon to plan the next day’s flights, with other meetings at least every two hours throughout the day to share updates.

Former FAA administrator Michael Huerta said previous incidents involving tensions between the agency and airlines had been resolved behind the scenes. In public, the two have generally tried to show unity, he said.

“There’s always a tension between what the system can handle comfortably and what carriers might want to provide,” said Huerta, who led the FAA during the Obama administration.

Having the tensions aired publicly “reflects a sense of frustration on everyone’s part,” he said.

Disputes began to develop in April, when airline executives requested a meeting with FAA officials to resolve air traffic control issues in Florida. Demand for travel to the state is booming, with several airports seeing more flights than before the pandemic. Space launches have also emerged as a source of congestion.

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The meeting involved a dozen airlines, private aircraft operators and FAA officials over two days in early May. The FAA has pledged to add workers to its busy air traffic control facility in Jacksonville, which the agency figures showed had low staffing levels.

In a letter to Buttigieg in late June, Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, said one of its members had flagged air traffic control issues as a factor in a third of recent flight cancellations. carrier. While weather was also a factor, Calio wrote that air traffic control “personnel issues led to traffic restrictions in ‘blue sky’ conditions.”

In a memo to employees after the July 4 holiday weekend, United executive Jon Roitman estimated that more than half of the carrier’s delay minutes and three-quarters of its cancellations were due to FAA traffic management”, which had been particularly acute in Newark and Florida. And while he acknowledged that many of those delays were due to weather conditions, “air traffic volume and staffing also contribute.”

“The reality is that there are just more flights scheduled in the entire industry than the ATC staffing system can handle (especially in New York and Florida),” said the note. “Until this is resolved, we expect the U.S. aviation system to remain challenged this summer and beyond.”

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The memo drew a strong reaction from FAA officials.

“It is unfortunate to see United Airlines confuse weather-related air traffic control measures with ATC staffing issues, which could misleadingly imply that a majority of these situations are the result of ATC staffing. the FAA,” the agency said in a statement, adding that while there are overlapping factors affecting the nation’s aviation system, “the majority of delays and cancellations are not due to personnel at the FAA”.

The FAA said there were no issues with air traffic control personnel on July 3 and 4, but airlines canceled more than 1,110 flights, a quarter of which were operated by United.

Jeff Guzzetti, a former official with the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, examined flight delays and offered recommendations to reduce their effects on customers in a 2013 report. He said the causes of delays are complex, adding that it can be “difficult to determine what each of these contributing factors are”.

Despite this, he blamed most of the recent cancellations and delays to flight operations as the country began to emerge from the pandemic – a time when travel demand has skyrocketed.

Michael J. McCormick, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former FAA official, said the increase in delays and cancellations reflects demand for travel beyond what the industry was prepared to. to manage.

“The airlines don’t want to be the only organization to blame what’s going on in the system and say ‘the FAA, you share the blame in this,'” he said. Air traffic control problems are “certainly part of it, but I wouldn’t call it a major problem”.

While airlines have laid off workers as people stopped flying in 2020, the effects of the pandemic on the FAA workforce have been less severe. FAA documents show it lost about 500 air traffic controllers between September 2019 and September 2021. That left some large facilities with staffing levels down from what the agency estimates are needed, according to a recent staffing study. from the FAA. The union which represents maintenance technicians also indicates that the number of employees has decreased in recent years.

The FAA hired 509 controllers last year, but is looking to add 1,020 more this fiscal year to help rebuild its staff, a process that involves years of training.

“There are certain geographies, including Florida, where the impact of covid on our training pipeline has really affected the air traffic organization,” Buttigieg said.

Airline executives also pointed to airspace around Newark Liberty the international airport as particularly troubled. United cut flights there to better manage its operations — a process in which Kirby said federal officials had been a reliable partner.

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