Summer flights: Airlines are the biggest source of flight delays

Summer flights: Airlines are the biggest source of flight delays

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Airline executives, under a wave of criticism from the public, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have tried to shift the blame for flight problems this summer onto the nation’s air traffic control system. But federal data show that the airlines themselves are the biggest cause of delays in recent months and are responsible for an unusually high proportion of cancellations.

The figures, reported by airlines and released earlier 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 were canceled through May — the second most in the first five months of the year since 1988, only peaking by 2020 during the rise of the pandemic.

The jump in flight delays and cancellations — stemming from rising demand in an industry that lost tens of thousands of workers during the pandemic — led to unusual rounds of public finger-pointing that began this spring. It came as the nation’s airports recorded their busiest days of the pandemic era, prompting undermanned airlines to increase worker pay incentives and reduce schedules.

The industry’s criticism of air traffic controllers sparked rebuttals from the Federal Aviation Administration and Buttigieg, reminding passengers of their right to reimbursement when airlines cancel flights or subject passengers to longer delays.

While air traffic control officials acknowledge their own pandemic-era challenges, data suggests those issues have not played a significant role in this year’s airline battle.

According to figures from the Transportation Department, the airlines were direct responsible for around 41 per cent of delays through May, a figure on par with last year, but higher than before the pandemic. Late arrivals – another problem mainly attributable to airlines – accounted for a further 37 per cent of delays.

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Problems with the nation’s airspace, such as congestion, bad weather or staffing at air traffic control facilities, accounted for 17 percent of delays — the lowest level since officials began tracking the data in 2004. Extreme weather is its own category and accounted for about 5 percent of delays.

When it comes to cancellations, problems attributed to the airlines were cited in 38 percent of cases, the highest rate since 2012. But the majority of cancellations involve circumstances beyond the airlines’ control. The weather was cited in 55 percent of the cases. National airspace issues, such as those involving air traffic control, accounted for 7 percent of the cancellations.

Buttigieg said there are signs that flights are becoming more reliable, although cancellation rates continue to remain 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 here to enforce the rules when they are not, he said recently. “Anytime there’s something under the FAA’s control, they’ll work on it, but I want to be very, very clear here: It doesn’t explain most of the delays.”

Experts said the dispute between airlines and air traffic control likely reflects a desire by industry leaders to spread the blame after months of difficulties. Senior industry figures in the past week signaled they are ready to put the dispute aside, taking a more conciliatory tone.

In an earnings call Thursday, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said he had personally apologized to Buttigieg after an internal company memo appeared to fault air traffic controllers for many of the airline’s late flights.

“I think the whole system is strained,” Kirby said. “There is close staffing everywhere, and that is part of it. It is not unique to the FAA. It’s all across the economy, and certainly a large part of the things that affect aviation are tight.”

Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President of Legislative and Regulatory Policy at trade group Airlines for America, added: “We’re really not interested in engaging in a finger-pointing exercise. We’re focused on working together and trying to make sure we’re all focused on the things that are going to improve operational safety.”

There are signs that working conditions that have plagued the industry are improving. Southwest Airlines employs more people than it did before the pandemic. Delta Air Lines officials said this month that the company has hired 18,000 people since 2021 and its workforce is 95 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

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Airlines and the FAA routinely communicate to manage the nation’s skies. Air traffic controllers and airline executives meet virtually every afternoon to plan the next day’s flights, with others meeting at least every two hours throughout the day to share updates.

Former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said previous incidents involving tension between the agency and airlines were resolved behind the scenes. In public, both have typically tried to show unity, he said.

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

The fact that tensions are being aired publicly “reflects a sense of frustration on everyone’s part,” he said.

Disputes began to build in April, when airline executives sought a meeting with FAA officials to address air traffic control issues in Florida. Demand for travel to the state is booming, with more 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 pledged to add workers to the busy air traffic control facility in Jacksonville, which agency figures show was short staffed.

In a late June letter to Buttigieg, Nicholas E. Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, said one of its members reported that air traffic problems were a factor in a third of the airline’s recent cancellations. While weather was also a factor, Calio wrote that air traffic control “crew issues have led to traffic restrictions in ‘blue sky’ conditions.”

In a memo to employees after the July 4 holiday weekend, United CEO 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 initiatives,” which had been particularly acute in Newark and Florida. And while he acknowledged that many of those delays stemmed from the weather, “air traffic volume and staffing also contribute.”

“The reality is that there are just more flights scheduled across the industry than the ATC manning system can handle (especially in NY and FL),” said the note. “Until that is resolved, we expect the US aviation system to remain challenged this summer and beyond.”

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The memo drew a sharp response from FAA officials.

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

The FAA said there were no air traffic control staffing issues 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 in the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, studied flight delays and made 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 is”.

Still, he blamed the bulk of recent cancellations and delays on airline operations as the nation has begun to emerge from the pandemic — a time when demand for travel 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 a travel demand beyond what the industry was prepared to handle.

“The airlines don’t want to be the one organization to blame for what’s going on in the system and say, ‘FAA, you share the blame for this,'” he said. Air traffic control issues are “definitely part of it, but I wouldn’t characterize them as that most important.”

While airlines shed workers as people stopped flying in 2020, the effects of the pandemic on the FAA’s workforce were less severe. FAA documents show it lost about 500 air traffic controllers between September 2019 and September 2021. That has left some large facilities with staffing toward the low end of what the agency estimates is needed, according to a recent FAA staffing study. The union representing maintenance technicians also says that staffing numbers have decreased in recent years.

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

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

Airline executives have also pointed to the airspace around Newark Liberty International Airport which is particularly troubled. United has cut flights there to gain better control of its operations — a process in which Kirby said federal officials have been a reliable partner.

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