Summer air travel: Airlines are the biggest source of flight delays


Airlines executives, under a barrage of criticism from the public, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, sought to blame this summer’s flight problems on the country’s air traffic control system. But federal data shows that airlines themselves have been the biggest cause of delays in recent months and are to blame for an unusually high percentage of cancellations.

Figures reported and issued by airlines in the past week by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, it also confirms the experiences of many passengers: 2022 was a difficult year for air travel. Federal transportation officials say 88,161 flights have been canceled through May — the second most in the first five months of the year Since 1988, it has only been exceeded by 2020 during the onset of the epidemic.

The jump in flight delays and cancellations – caused by increased demand in an industry that has laid off tens of thousands of employees during the pandemic – prompted extraordinary rounds of finger-pointing to the public beginning this spring. It came as the country’s airports were registering their busiest days in the pandemic era, prompting ill-equipped airlines to boost worker pay incentives and shrink schedules.

Industry criticism of air traffic controllers sparked backlash from the FAA and Buttigieg, reminding passengers of Money Back Rights When airlines cancel flights or expose passengers to long delays.

While air traffic control officials acknowledge the challenges they face in the era of the pandemic, the data suggests that these issues have not played a significant role in airlines’ woes this year.

According to Ministry of Transport figures, air carriers were direct Responsible for about 41 percent of delays to May, a figure equal to last year but higher than it was before the pandemic. Aircraft delays – another problem often attributed to airlines – accounted for an additional 37 percent of delays.

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The nation’s airspace problems, 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 data in 2004. Extreme weather is its own category and accounts for about 5 percent of delays.

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

Buttigieg said there are signs that air travel is becoming more reliable, even as cancellation rates continue to hover above acceptable levels.

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

Experts said the spat between airlines and air traffic control may reflect industry leaders’ desire to spread blame after months of hardship. Senior industry figures indicated last week that they were willing to put the feud aside, setting a more conciliatory tone.

On Thursday’s earnings call, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said he had personally apologized to Buttigieg after an internal airline memo appeared to have missed air traffic controllers on several of the airline’s delayed flights.

“I think the whole system is stressed,” Kirby said. “There are a few employees all over the place, and that’s part of it. It’s not unique to the FAA. It’s everything in the entire economy, and certainly a large part of the stuff that touches on tight aviation.”

Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President for Legislative and Regulatory Policy At the Air America Business Group, he added, “We’re not really interested in participating in a finger-pointing exercise. We’re focused on collaboration and trying to make sure we’re all focused on things that will improve operational reliability.”

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

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Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration routinely communicate to manage the nation’s skies. Air traffic controllers and airline managers meet virtually every afternoon to plan next-day flights, with other meetings at least every two hours throughout the day to share updates.

Previous incidents involving tension between the agency and airlines have been resolved behind the scenes, former FAA director Michael Huerta said. Usually, he said, both tried to show unity.

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

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

The disputes began to surface in April, when airline leaders sought a meeting with FAA officials to address air traffic control issues in Florida. Demand for travel to the state is growing, with many airports seeing more flights than they did before the pandemic. Space launches have also emerged as a source of congestion.

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Dozens of airlines, private jet operators and Federal Aviation Administration officials took part in the meeting over a two-day period in early May. The Federal Aviation Administration has pledged to add workers to the crowded air traffic control facility in Jacksonville, which agency numbers show employment levels are low.

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

In a note to employees after the July 4 weekend, United CEO John Roitman estimated that more than half of the carrier’s minutes delays and three-quarters of cancellations were due to “FAA traffic management initiatives,” which were particularly acute in Newark and Florida. And while I acknowledge that many of these delays are caused by the weather, “the volume of air traffic and staff are also contributing.”

“The reality is that there are more flights scheduled at the industry level than the ATC employee system can handle (especially in New York and Florida),” said the note. “Until that is resolved, we expect the US aviation system to continue to face challenges this summer and beyond.”

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The memo was met with a sharp response from FAA officials.

“It is unfortunate to see United Airlines merging weather-related air traffic control procedures with ATC employment issues, which may deceptively suggest that the majority of these situations are the result of FAA employees,” the agency said in a statement. There are overlapping factors affecting the country’s air system, “the majority of delays and cancellations are not due to recruitment into the FAA.”

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

Jeff Giusetti, a former official in the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, examined flight delays and made recommendations on reducing their impact on customers in a 2013 report. The reasons for the delays are complex, he said, adding that it may be “difficult to determine what each of these contributing factors are.” .

However, he blamed the bulk of recent cancellations and delays for airline operations as the nation began to emerge from the pandemic — a time when travel demand skyrocketed.

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

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

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

The FAA hired 509 controllers last year, but is seeking to add 1,020 more to the year’s budget to help rebuild its staff, a process that requires years of training.

“There are certain geographies, notably Florida, where the Covid virus has impacted our training pipeline already on the air traffic organization,” Buttigieg said.

Airlines executives also referred to the airspace around Newark Liberty The international airport is particularly turbulent. United cut flights there to improve handling of its operations — a process in which Kirby said federal officials were a reliable partner.

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