Extreme climate and FAA deficits make for a bumpy begin
Flight disruptions became more frequent on Tuesday as severe storms and staffing issues made for a bumpy start to the summer.
About 3,000 U.S. flights were delayed as of Tuesday noon and another 1,100 were canceled as thunderstorms continued that derailed thousands of trips over the weekend. There were also more than 8,800 delays in the US and 2,246 cancellations on Monday.
The disruptions come ahead of the busy July 4 holiday season, when millions of people are expected to fly. The Transportation Security Administration said it could screen more travelers than it could in 2019 before the pandemic, which would intensify competition for vacant seats.
The Biden administration has pressured airlines to improve their operations after widespread flight disruptions last spring and summer, which prompted airlines to cut back on their over-ambitious schedules. But the industry struggled last weekend to recover from a series of thunderstorms that didn’t let up for days.
Thunderstorms are difficult for airlines because they can form faster than other major weather hazards such as winter storms or hurricanes. Recurring delays could force crews to meet federally mandated work days, making disruptions even worse.
Some airline executives also blame a lack of air traffic controllers for some of the disruptions.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told employees Monday that “the FAA has frankly let us down this weekend.” He said the FAA was reducing arrival rates at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, one of New Jersey’s largest hubs, during Saturday’s storms of the airline, by 40% and departures by 75%.
“It resulted in massive delays, cancellations, diversions, crews and aircraft losing their positions,” Kirby wrote in a staff note seen by CNBC. “And that brought everyone to their heads when the weather actually hit on Sunday, and was exacerbated by staffing shortages at the FAA on Sunday night.”
An FAA spokesman said in a statement, “We will always work with anyone who is genuinely willing to join us to solve an issue.”
The staffing challenges are not new. The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed the hiring and training of new air traffic controllers and the agency is now trying to catch up.
The Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General said in a report last week that air traffic control staffing shortages are threatening air travel. In March, the FAA and some airlines agreed to reduce flights to ease congestion at busy New York airports due to staffing issues.
But problems remain as airlines prepare their crews and schedules for a busy summer season due to sustained travel demand.
And the disruptions frustrated flight crews, who had to wait in queues for reassignments.
The Association of Flight Attendants (CWA), which represents flight attendants at United and others, said in a memo to its members Monday that staff scheduling wait times are longer than three hours.
“Union leaders and inflight management are absolutely clear that something needs to be done to permanently address these adverse situations arising from irregular operations,” the union said.
In response to the union’s memo, United said it “has used all available resources to catch up with the call volume, including increasing staffing levels in the workforce management team and mandating overtime in the resource planning team.”
Based in New York JetBlue Airways In a note to crew members Monday, verified by CNBC, the company also said it had struggled with numerous flight delays in recent days and acknowledged it could improve how it handles disruptions.
Don Uselmann, JetBlue’s vice president of inflight experience, said the airline could have updated crew reporting times more efficiently, eliminating the need for staff to wait for flights and reducing wait times for hotel assignments.
“The peak of summer is officially underway and extreme weather events, air traffic control staffing shortages and the resulting delays will test all airlines,” he said in his note. “This weekend [irregular operation] It won’t be our last, but the combination of events put a lot of pressure on the operation and made it more difficult than most.”