How the Air Traffic Controller Shortage Could Impact Your Summer Travel
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Air Travel

An Air Traffic Controller Shortage Is Forcing Airlines to Cut Back on Summer Flights

The schedule reductions are currently affecting New York City’s LaGuardia, Newark Liberty, and Washington Reagan. 

Last summer, pilot shortages were blamed for flight disruptions across the country—this year, it could be the lack of air traffic controllers. But this time around, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is getting ahead of the issue, giving airlines the chance to adjust their schedules before passengers are affected. 

Airlines have been given the opportunity to scale back on slot usage requirements from May 15 to September 15 at the worst-impacted airports: the three NYC airports, plus Washington Reagan National Airport. Airlines are grateful for the heads-up, each taking its own approach to the situation. 

Which U.S. airlines are cutting back on summer flights due to the air traffic controller shortage?

Five of the largest airlines in the U.S. are all scaling back summer flights to avoid headaches around the shortage.

Delta commends the FAA for recognizing shared challenges that exist between the FAA, airports, and airlines at New York and New Jersey airports, and for implementing a coordinated plan to improve operational reliability at these airports, while mitigating flight disruptions for customers during the peak summer travel season,” the Atlanta-based airlines says. It’s currently reviewing its network to “ensure the safety and efficiency of operations” at the affected airports.

Meanwhile American Airlines says it will “temporarily reduce frequencies on select routes” from LaGuardia and Newark this summer, and are “proactively reaching out to affected customers to offer alternate travel arrangements.”

United has taken the most action so far, reducing daily schedules at LaGuardia (the nine daily departures to Dulles will shrink to six), Newark (peak daily departures will go from 438 to 408), and Washington DC’s Reagan (the 18 daily departures to Newark will go down to 10) airports. “In many cases, we’ll replace the frequencies with larger aircraft to minimize the disruption to our customers’ travel plans,” the Chicago-based airline says. 

Despite the reductions, the airline will actually fly five percent more seats out of those three airports than they did in the summer of 2019, so they anticipate the changes to affect less than two percent of the customers at those airports, with most of them still getting to their destinations within two hours of their original times. 

Smaller airlines have faced less impact. Southwest says since it only operates up to 37 flights from five gates at LaGuardia and 45 flights out of seven gates at Washington Reagan, there won’t be any changes and all current flights are bookable through November 4. JetBlue says it’s been increasing staffing over the last year in anticipation of this upcoming summer season, and is still assessing its schedule reduction. 

“While it is disappointing to reduce flights for customers as they plan their summer holidays and as New York City works to rebound from the pandemic, we are pleased the leadership team at the FAA is proactively working to get in front of this and is being transparent about the staffing shortages,” the New York-based carrier says. “With these challenges out in the open, the industry and government can collaborate on necessary steps to reduce disruption to summer travel and solve the staffing shortages.”

How is the FAA fixing the air traffic controller shortage?

Air traffic controllers (ATCs) just might be the unsung hero of the industry, guiding pilots, planes, and 2.7 million daily passengers safely from taxi to takeoff. But the National Airspace System (NAS) is currently near a 30-year low in the number of certified controllers, National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Rich Santa wrote in a testimony to the House of Representatives last month

With the meticulous years-long training period in a field that has zero room for error, an age requirement of being 30 years old or younger to apply, and a retirement age of 56, there are currently 10 percent fewer fully certified controllers than a decade ago, Santa noted. 

“The FAA is working to reduce the training backlog that Covid created,” the agency says. “We paused training at the height of the pandemic to protect the workforce and keep the airspace safe and working.” 

After missing hiring targets from 2012 to 2015, the FAA says it will have 1,500 new ATC hires this year and 1,800 next year. “Air traffic controller is not a career choice that large numbers of potential applicants know a lot about—and how to enter the civilian ATC ranks can be a bit of a mystery,” FlightAware’s Kathleen Bangs says. 

Certain high-traffic regions may also be subject to even more stringent skills and training. “To become a controller in a traffic-density area like NYC triad, it takes an experienced controller—it’s not exactly a rookie position,” Bangs says. The New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (N90) is currently at 54 percent of its staffing target.

That’s why the three NYC airports are seeing the biggest impact of these shortages. The FAA says it’s “taking several steps to keep air travel this summer safe and smooth, even as we see strong domestic demand and a return of pre-pandemic international traffic.”

Later this year, the FAA will also reassign about 100 square miles of Newark air space within the N90 zone to Philadelphia Terminal Radar Approach Control to spread out the volume.

What's the outlook for resolving the shortage?

This isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. “Air traffic controller shortages have been an issue at different times over the last two years, especially noticeable to the traveling public in and out of Florida on various occasions with air traffic limitations imposed by Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center and in the busy New York City airport triad,” Bang says. 

In Florida, she says that the shortages have been combined with an increase in air traffic, with business aircraft up more than 20 percent in 2022 compared to 2019. ”Florida is unique due to its geography (narrow and surrounded by ocean on three sides), weather (world lightning strike capital), and airspace limitations from multiple government (NASA), and private enterprise space launches from the Space Coast on the Atlantic,” she says. 

But the fact that the staffing shortage discussions are being had hopefully means that a little setback now will pay off in the long run. “U.S. airlines recognize the importance of securing a pipeline of new employees—including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and others—to accommodate growing demand for air travel across the country and around the globe,” Airlines for America's Marli Collier says. “Carriers have been addressing this need in a myriad of ways, including creating new pilot training programs, enhancing recruitment efforts, tapping into communities to increase diversity—gender and race—and implementing programs to address financial hurdles.” She adds that across all airline employees, U.S. passenger airlines employed more than 478,000 workers—the most in 20 years, as of January 2023.

But for now, travelers in the pandemic age may need to continue to pack patience and flexibility. “Hopefully, travelers have learned over the past year with all of the attention focused on delays and cancellations that it’s imperative to have a back-up plan for travel,” Bangs says. “Knowledge is travel power.”