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Secretary Buttigieg Warns of a Lengthy Air Traffic Control Staffing Shortage

Edward Russell
May 23rd, 2023 at 4:06 PM EDT
Transportation Secretary Buttigieg talks summer travel

Photo credit: Transportation Secretary Buttigieg talks summer travel Airline Weekly / Edward Russell

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned Tuesday of the air traffic controller shortage stretching well beyond this summer as the Federal Aviation Administration works to rebuild its ranks after the pandemic.

“This is going to be a journey, especially when you factor in attrition, to get to levels we want to see,” Buttigieg said Tuesday during a summer travel briefing in Washington, D.C. “I think it’ll be a while before we’re at levels we’d like to see.”

The FAA is about 3,000 air traffic controllers short of target levels this summer, he said. That shortage translates to roughly 81 percent staffed nationally this summer and, in the busy New York market, just 54 percent staffed. The agency plans to hire roughly 1,500 new controllers this year and, subject to budget approval, another 1,800 controllers next year. New controllers require up to three years of training.

The shortage prompted the unprecedented move by the FAA to waive usage requirements at New York’s JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports for 10 percent of the slots or runway timings this summer in an effort to reduce delays. The waiver is effective from May 15 through September 15.

Airlines are scheduled to fly nearly 3 percent fewer flights but 0.3 percent more seats on U.S. domestic flights from New York this July compared to last year, according to Cirium Diio data.

U.S. air traffic control staffing has become a hot button issue in the pandemic air travel recovery. Last summer, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian raised some of the first alarm bells when he called the FAA’s air traffic control organization the most “stressed” in the aviation ecosystem. Other issues affecting the industry include its own staffing levels, lower productivity rates, and supply chain issues including delays of new planes and shortages of certain spare parts. But the air traffic control situation remains top of mind to many in the U.S. amid the continued surge in travel demand and the pending reauthorization of the FAA’s budget.

“We need to get an FAA reauthorization bill that gives them money for technology and staffing,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said Tuesday on CNBC. “This is what I’m most worried about.”

The FAA’s budget is on a five-year reauthorization cycle in Congress that is up this year. Lawmakers have already begun debating aspects, including the funding to hire the 1,800 new controllers that Buttigieg mentioned and whether or not to add more long-distance flights at Washington’s close-in Reagan National Airport.

That reauthorization process is beginning against the backdrop of debt ceiling talks between President Biden and House Republicans. While Buttigieg did not comment directly on whether those talks could impact controller hiring, he did say that a U.S. debt default “won’t be good” for anyone.

Avoiding a repeat of last summer’s surge in flight disruptions is the goal for everyone across the industry this summer. Buttigieg Tuesday called the situation last year as “unacceptable,” and reiterated the DOT’s work building out a website of air traveler rights.

However, when asked about the possibility of a surge in flight delays and cancellations this year, even with the DOT’s actions in New York, Buttigieg acknowledged that “it’s a concern.”

“This is going to be a most challenging summer ahead,” JetBlue Airways President Joanna Geraghty said in April referring to the air traffic control staffing situation in New York. She noted that, even with the slot waiver in New York, there was no “short-term fix” to boost air traffic controller numbers due to the lengthy training requirements. JetBlue is more exposed to airspace issues in the northeast than other airlines as roughly three-quarters of its flights touch either Boston or New York.

The DOT, like airlines, forecasts a busy summer travel season despite the operational challenges. Traveler numbers are expected to exceed 2019 levels during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend holiday, which is the unofficial start of summer in the U.S.

Buttigieg pointed to the DOT’s work implementing more than 100 new, more direct air routes as part of its effort to ease operational stress. The agency is also coordinating with NASA and other organizations to shift space launches in Florida out of peak travel periods. Every space launch requires airspace closures that, in Florida’s busy airspace, can lead to significant flight delays.

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