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‘No solution in sight’: Airline chaos bites the FAA

Airlines and the Biden administration have no quick way to ease the flight disruptions, which are due in part to the same lingering consequences of Covid-19 that have affected other aspects of the US economy since 2020. But they are trying to get flights. back to relative normal before the holiday weekend, and hopefully good weather.

In the past week alone, airlines canceled nearly 8,000 flights, according to flight tracker FlightAware, a mess that heartened critics of the Biden administration. The number of canceled flights since Saturday exceeds the total for all of March, according to DOT data.

On Monday, as his company faced far worse cancellations than other airlines at its hub in Newark, N.J., United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told employees in a memo that “the FAA is downright fail this weekend.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also chimed in, saying he will use his perch as the top Senate Republican on the committee that oversees airlines to change the way the agency employs its air traffic controllers.

“Staffing at FAA air traffic facilities in New York is 54 percent,” Cruz tweeted. “Yet the DOT blames the weather for the delays. Nonsense.”

Kirby and Cruz were referring to a particularly acute shortage of air traffic controllers in the nation’s busiest airspace around New York City, where flight delays and cancellations can quickly affect the entire country . At Newark Liberty International Airport, a major hub for United, more than 40 percent of all flights Monday were canceled because of bad weather.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday evening that he disagreed with Kirby’s assessment that the FAA “failed” airlines and passengers. But he acknowledged problems in the New York City area.

“The staffing levels there are not at the level I want to see there,” Buttigieg told CNN. “They don’t let us down much. If you have a few people calling in sick or if you have an unusual event, it really throws off the system.”

And Buttigieg, without explicitly attacking Kirby, he tweeted on Thursday that “with the exception of United,” airlines had returned to a “more typical cancellation/delay rate.” As of Thursday afternoon, United flights accounted for about 84 percent of the cancellations nationwide, according to FlightAware.

The FAA responded to Kirby’s memo by saying “we will always work with anyone who is seriously willing to join us in solving a problem.”

But late Thursday, the president of the Airline Pilots Association’s United Airlines unit issued a message blaming United for the current crop of problems, saying it’s a “direct result of poor planning.” of airline executives.

“The company is dragging its feet to take any proactive steps to mitigate further delays, including finalizing a new contract with us,” said Garth Thompson, chairman of ALPA’s senior executive board for United.

Airlines and Republicans aren’t the only ones pointing the finger at the FAA, an agency that has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for more than a year. In a scathing report published on June 23, the DOT inspector general he called the agency’s air traffic controller staff inadequate and suggested the FAA has no real plan to fix the problem.

All of this combined, the IG says, means that controller personnel present a “risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.” He noted that most of the FAA’s critical facilities are staffed below what the agency considers an adequate staffing level, meaning at least 85 percent of a facility’s target staffing level. lation In two of the busiest airspace regions, Miami and New York, staffing levels are 54 percent and 66 percent, respectively, the IG said.

In addition, the march of Covid through the ranks of controllers led to two years of training breaks, which exacerbated the already long training times for new controllers. These ramifications are not yet fully known, according to the report, “because training results vary widely and it can take more than 3 years to train a driver.”

“Because of these uncertain training results, the FAA cannot guarantee that it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term,” the IG wrote.

Buttigieg and the FAA have repeatedly said they plan to hire 1,500 air traffic controllers this year and want Congress to fund 1,800 controller hires next year. (The agency has about 13,300 controllers, the inspector general says.) But fully training controllers takes years, and many drop out.

Filling the shortfall won’t be quick, the former head of the air traffic controllers union said.

“There is no short-term solution because it takes three to five years to fully hire and train a controller,” said former National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi. “Covid exacerbated the problem, but at the end of the day it’s not just a Covid problem, it’s a two-decade problem. You can’t make an air traffic controller overnight.”

The shortage ultimately dates back to President Ronald Reagan’s mass firing and striking air traffic controllers in 1981, which the FAA replaced with people who were eligible to retire around the same time.

The agency has had varying degrees of success in manpower management since then, an endemic problem that only worsened during the two-year quarantine. Illnesses during the pandemic further slowed training, and in the meantime, as in many industries, some people decided to retire.

According to the IG, only about 10,600 of the FAA’s roughly 13,300 air traffic controllers are fully trained and certified. The rest are new hires or in an interim training phase.

According to NATCA officials, the controller workforce was at a 30-year low even before Covid.

The union supports efforts by lawmakers from both parties to use this year’s FAA reauthorization bill to bolster air traffic controller hiring, including having the National Academy of Sciences study how to address the shortfall .

“I think Congress is addressing a lot of the issues in terms of staffing,” Rinaldi said. But he added: “The problem is that these studies take years.”

The FAA and airlines had anticipated this year’s problems, particularly in the New York City region, and earlier this summer instituted an interim solution that allowed airlines to accommodate the same number of passengers taking fewer flights with larger aircraft. But that step has proven inadequate over the past week as severe thunderstorms battered the area and ruined flights.

And another busy travel weekend is coming up, with the Transportation Security Administration predicting that nearly 18 million people will pass through airport security over the next week. The busiest day, Friday, is expected to reach 2.82 million passengers, a number that would surpass pre-pandemic levels.

Virtually any bad weather, especially in the New York or Florida regions, could retest the system.

Beyond staffing, the FAA’s own equipment is also vulnerable to malfunctions that cause headaches for passengers. Overheating cables at an FAA facility in Virginia caused approximately two hours of flight delays at airports in the Washington, DC area on Sunday. While the delays were minimal compared to the mess in New York, they contributed to some of the worst-performing days for on-time flights since the Southwest Airlines holiday crisis late last year.

Airline staffing also remains an ongoing challenge, despite efforts by carriers to increase staffing to higher levels than before the pandemic. When flights are delayed or canceled, crews must be diverted, and airlines say more staff are needed to operate flights now than they were before the pandemic because more reservations are needed to maintain operations. fluids if employees get sick.

Airlines for America, a trade association representing major airlines, said its members “have been aggressively hiring and reducing schedules to reflect current operating realities, including FAA staffing shortages.” The trade group noted that before this weekend’s challenges, airlines completed more than 99 percent of flights from Memorial Day weekend through June 24.

The Flight Attendants Association-CWA, which represents United Airlines flight attendants, he said in a note that the airline’s internal crew scheduling line saw wait times of three hours earlier this week as crews scrambled to cover flights. Later, AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson he tweeted a photo of flight attendants sleeping in cots as proof of scheduling problems.

“Frustration levels are high and there seems to be no solution in sight, particularly for those who have been on duty for extended periods of time,” the union said in the memo.

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