Following the damage to air travel caused by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, the aviation industry has been looking forward to a busy peak summer period working at full operational capacity. However, the Federal Aviation Administration’s response to staff shortages at an air traffic control center in New York has dealt a serious blow to these plans. As a means of reducing flight traffic, the FAA have asked airlines to voluntarily cut their summer operations in the area by 10%. Such a move is holding back the aviation industry at a time when, more than ever, it hopes to rebound.
Staffing shortages at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control facility (TRACON) will impact flights out of the three airports servicing the New York metropolitan area – John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty International – as well as D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The FAA say TRACON is staffed at just 54% of the level it needs. These staffing shortages, combined with rising consumer demand (the FAA has estimated a 7% increase in passenger traffic this summer compared to the last) has led them to predict a 45% increase in delays if nothing is done.
This is deeply unwelcome news, especially considering the impact the last three years has had on the airline industry. Despite an easing of COVID-related travel restrictions in 2022, last summer’s peak season was plagued by delays and cancellations due to a variety of factors, including air traffic control constraints, scheduling issues, and weather. As a result, airlines were looking forward to this summer’s surge in demand.
It is therefore disappointing that the FAA, in a bid to “keep air travel to and from New York City this summer safe and smooth”, has proposed solutions to reduce congestion in the region which involve flying fewer but larger aircrafts. The agency has offered airlines to voluntarily turn in up to 10% of their slots held at the affected airports from 15 May to 15 September – a period acknowledged as the peak summer surge. It has given airlines until 30 April to make a decision regarding the proposed solutions offered. FAA Administrator, Billy Nolen, told NBC News that their goal was to be “proactive” about the situation.
Yet there is a distinct frustration in the airline industry at these measures. For the first time in three years, airlines are now able to operate at pre-pandemic levels: most have the necessary staffing of pilots and cabin crew, as well as the aircrafts and infrastructure, to meet the increasing passenger demand the industry is seeing. It is solely the staffing issues of air traffic control that is holding them back from full-scale operations in the northeast.
On the whole, airline executives have expressed their frustration at the situation but stated a willingness to work with the FAA. In a letter to the agency, Delta announced it would “work collaboratively” with the agency, and has, along with United Airlines, agreed to the 10% cut. Similarly, JetBlue Chief Executive Robin Hayes has decided to proactively limit the airline’s operations in the New York area. He echoed the sentiments of many when he told CNBC that “no airline wants to pull down flights”, but also accepted that as it stands, “the system is not going to be workable this summer”.
There are undeniable safety concerns regarding the current state of air traffic control. Last week the FAA warned of the number of near-miss incidents occurring on or near runways. However, the solution is not to stifle the aviation industry by curtailing the number of flights operating in the airspace around New York. It is an action that would serve only to punish airlines, who are ready with the staff and infrastructure to meet the demand and operate at pre-pandemic levels, and passengers, who rely on these flights for their summer travels.
Instead, the FAA needs to invest in the longer-term solutions of increased staffing and better planning in order to increase the efficiency of air traffic control. Its commitment to reallocating 100 square miles of airspace to Newark from the Philadelphia TRACON to mitigate staffing issues is a step in the right direction. However, this move is slated to begin in September, and is therefore too little and too late to aid this summer’s crisis.