Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and American Airlines have all indicated they will cut flights in the New York City area this summer as the region, one of the busiest in the U.S., faces a shortage of air traffic controllers.
The three airlines could reduce flights at New York JFK and LaGuardia, and Newark airports by up to 10 percent this summer following U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidance of the controller shortage. None of the carrier’s have removed the flights from their schedules yet, but all have said that they will after a FAA-led meeting on the situation on March 29.
“We need to reduce flying and make sure we can operate what we’ve got,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said of the situation in New York on March 29.
The FAA said earlier in March that it expects air traffic controller staffing to only be about 54 percent of needed levels in the New York area; nationally staffing will be about 81 percent. And, without flight reductions at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark by airlines, roughly 45 percent of all flights into and out of the region could be delayed.
The FAA staffing shortage is not new. Last June, Delta CEO Ed Bastian highlighted air traffic control as the most “stressed” segment of the aviation ecosystem at the time. United executives echoed that view a few weeks later. Part of the problem is the length of time it takes to train a new air traffic controller — three years — and the fact that the FAA suspended training during the pandemic despite an already lean workforce.
The FAA also faces heightened scrutiny of its air traffic control management after a number of near misses at airports around the U.S. In recent months, planes have narrowly avoided collisions at airports in Austin, Boston, and New York to name a few. It is unclear yet how many of these near incidents are attributable to air traffic control or pilot errors.
The situation has prompted the regulator to take the unusual step and allow airlines to idle up to 10 percent of their slots at JFK and LaGuardia, and runway timings at Newark, from May 15 to September 15 to alleviate congestion. One slot or runway timing is needed for each takeoff and landing, and airlines are typically required to use each 80 percent of the time. The FAA’s waiver also applies to slots at Washington’s Reagan National airport.
Airlines must request the waivers from the FAA by April 30.
Delta, United, and JetBlue are the three largest airlines by departures at the three New York-area airports combined, according to Diio by Cirium schedules. Together, they operate 69 percent of all departures from JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark from May through September. A 10 percent reduction in departures by all three airlines would represent a 7 percent decrease overall at the airports.
A spokesperson for American Airlines said Monday that the carrier, the fourth largest in the New York area, would “temporarily reduce frequencies on select routes” from LaGuardia and Newark.
The decrease in overall flights will likely be higher than the decline in available seats. Airlines have a choice what flights they cancel, and removing one operated by a 50-seat regional jet will have a smaller impact on overall capacity through the New York area than removing one flown by a 190-seat Airbus A321. However, removing more flights flown by small aircraft would mean smaller destinations could bear the burden of the flights cuts.
Delta has already made one such small community cut: Flights between LaGuardia and State College, Pa., will end on June 4, Diio data show and an airline spokesperson confirms. While they attributed the suspension to “regional carrier pilot availability and customer demand,” the availability to at least temporarily idle those slots likely played factored into the decision making. The route was flown with 70-seat Bombardier CRJ900 aircraft.
“Delta is reviewing our network to ensure the best customer experience throughout the summer travel season and we are committed to working with the FAA on measures to ensure the safety and efficiency of operations at the [New York/New Jersey] airports,” the Delta spokesperson said of the air traffic controller staffing situation in New York.
Conor Cunningham, an analyst at Melius Research, wrote Monday that Delta, United, and JetBlue could also consolidate flights in order to achieve the needed reduction in operations. In other words, they could replace two flights flown with, for example, a 76-seat regional jet with one on a 150-seat Boeing 737.
“There has been a consistent trend to lower capacity,” Cunningham wrote of the U.S. airline recovery in 2023. “Couple on-going constraints on capacity, a 30 percent correction lower in jet fuel costs, demand commentary that remains strong into spring and summer, and it is hard to not be incrementally constructive” on the industry. Other constraints on capacity include the pilot and captain shortage facing regional airlines, and delivery delays at big planemakers Airbus and Boeing.
Of course, Wall Street’s “constructive” means higher airline revenues and profit margins. That is not necessarily good for consumers that, with demand running on par with 2019 levels, are likely to face even higher airfares this summer than they did last year.
Story updated with statement from American Airlines.