Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sees a “stressed” air traffic control organization as the leading cause of flight disruptions in the U.S. His comments come amid increasing calls for reliable airline operations ahead of what is forecast to be a busy July Fourth holiday weekend.
“I think [our partner] that’s most stressed right now is air traffic control,” Bastian told staff in a webinar June 29 viewed by Airline Weekly. Based on the Atlanta-based carrier’s internal data, air traffic control-related flight cancellations are up 195 percent this year compared to 2021 while weather events are up only 2 percent. Air traffic control in the U.S. is managed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This is about a partnership and the government needs to step up,” Bastian continued. “It should get better, but this is going to be a constraint that’s going to stay with us for some time.”
Flight disruptions in the U.S. have gotten so rampant that even members of Congress are calling for answers. “So far this year, one out of every five flights in the United States were delayed, while airlines are cancelling flights four times as often on high-travel weekends than they did in 2019 … That is simply unacceptable,” Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on June 28.
Bastian’s comments come a day after Secretary Buttigieg denied that air traffic control staffing was the driving issue behind the current spate of flight disruptions.
“The majority of cancellations, and the majority of delays has nothing to do with air traffic control staffing,” Buttigieg said on NBC Nightly News on June 28. He called out, among other things, the early retirement packages that airlines offered staff during the pandemic that reduced staffing despite more than $54 billion in federal coronavirus relief.
During the town hall, Bastian acknowledged that Delta may have been too “generous” in the voluntary early retirement and other packages it offered staff in 2020. Every airline offered similar packages to reduce headcount in the early days of the pandemic even as federal aid protected jobs from involuntary furloughs and layoffs. Without that relief, many believe the issues the industry faces today would be much worse.
Despite pointing the finger at air traffic control, Bastian acknowledged that Delta’s own staffing was a drag on its operations. He reiterated that the airline is “fully staffed” for the summer, however, after the departures of many senior staff early in the pandemic, many new hires require training or lack experience handling irregular operations. Staffing issues forced Delta at the end of May to cancel roughly 2 percent of its schedule in July through the end of August.
Trade group Airlines for America (A4A) CEO Nicholas Calio wrote Secretary Buttigieg on June 24 asking for a meeting to “discuss how we can work together to better understand FAA’s controller staffing plan for the upcoming July Fourth weekend and summer travel season.” Other agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, had shared its staffing plans for the holiday with airlines, he said, and asked for other measures to mitigate flight disruptions. Air traffic control centers in Jacksonville, Fla., and New York face some of the worst staffing issues, Calio said.
Prior to Calio’s letter, most of the flight disruptions were blamed on staffing issues at airlines. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and many regional carriers — in short the vast majority of the U.S. industry — have cited staffing shortages or training backlogs in their schedule reductions in recent months. The industry as a whole has reduced summer schedules by roughly 15 percent from plans at the beginning of the year to account for staffing limits, said Calio.
The July Fourth holiday weekend is set up to be particularly rough for travelers. The highest number of flyers to date in the pandemic, roughly 12.9 million people, which is on par with 2019 levels, are forecast to fly in the U.S. from Thursday, June 30, through Monday, July 4, according to data from Hopper. Delta has taken the unusual step by offering travelers a blanket systemwide travel waiver to change their flights for free to avoid disruptions as long as they complete their trips on July 8.
“We have to have a little more patience, a little more understanding,” Bastian told staff of getting through the coming weeks. He expressed confidence in Delta’s ability to operate reliably over the July Fourth holiday.
Bastian also expressed optimism that the current staffing situation — both with air traffic controllers and at Delta — will ease. However, that could take until the end of the year, or early 2023, he added. Delta plans to will hold its capacity at a little over 80 percent of 2019 levels until the operational situation improves, he added.