North America

United’s New York Distress Shows how Weather Can Royally Mess Up an Airline’s Operations

Edward Russell

June 29th, 2023

United airplanes at Newark Airport with Manhattan in the background

It’s been a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good week to be flying in or out of the New York City area. Severe weather last weekend, coupled with a shortage of air traffic controllers in the New York area, contributed to thousands of flight delays and cancellations just before the start of the busy July Fourth holiday weekend.

More than 2,110 departures were canceled at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia, and Newark airports from Sunday through Wednesday, data from flight tracking websites FlightAware and FlightRadar24 show. But one airport was hit much harder than the others: Newark. And the carrier with a large hub there, United Airlines, was hit far more than any of its competitors.

United’s distress spread across much of its network. Cancellations ticked up at hubs across its network, including Chicago O’Hare, Denver, and Houston Bush, as the carrier struggled to recover from the New York-area issues that continued into the week. But the airline did manage to keep the situation mostly contained: Newark was the only airport with flight cancellations in the triple digits through Wednesday, FlightRadar24 data show. The vast majority of United flights through its hubs in, for example, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington Dulles operated as planned — though cancellations were above normal levels — if maybe a little delayed, FlightRadar24 data show.

The Chicago-based carrier appeared to be getting its operational house back in order Thursday. United had cancelled just 13 percent of its schedule as of 1:30 p.m. eastern time, FlightAware data show. That’s 13 percentage points better than on either Tuesday or Wednesday. And the improvement is needed: The airline expects to carry 5 million passengers over the July Fourth holiday, which it defines as from June 30 through July 9.

So what happened this week?

New York-area air travel was bound to face significant distress this summer. The Federal Aviation Administration admitted as much in March when it acknowledged a severe shortage of air traffic controllers and took the unprecedented step of allowing airlines to reduce schedules by up to 10 percent at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark this summer. The aim was to minimize disruptions from severe weather, always the foil to an airline’s best-laid plans. And it was only a question of when, not if, those storms materialized.

“This is going to be a most challenging summer,” JetBlue President and Chief Operating Officer Joanna Geraghty warned in April in comments on the FAA’s New York-area air traffic control staffing and flight reductions.

United CEO Scott Kirby told staff in a letter Monday that the FAA “reduced the arrival rates by 40% and the departure rates by 75%” at Newark on Saturday, June 24. “That put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening,” he said.

“The FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” Kirby added.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg struck back in comments Wednesday to CNN. While admitting that air traffic control staffing in New York was “not at the level I want to see,” he said, “United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through.”

Buttigieg has warned that it will “be a journey” to get to normalized air traffic controller staffing levels across the U.S. The FAA plans to hire 1,500 new controllers this year, and is seeking funding to hire another 1,800 next year. However, attrition during training can cut those numbers by up to half.

Just how much United’s distress was due to weather, air traffic control staffing, or its own issues — and it will be some mix of the three — will take time to determine. And United did have its own issues, as it acknowledged to pilots Wednesday in an internal memo viewed by Airline Weekly.

“The unpredictable severe weather that started Saturday and snowballed into the early part of this week resulted in hundreds of cancellations as [Newark] shut down for hours at a time,” United Vice President of Flight Operations Marc Champion said. “The cascading impact on other hubs has resulted in crews and airplanes out of position across the system, rendering recovery a highly complex process.”

Sound familiar? Crews and airplanes out of position were big problems for Southwest Airlines during its holiday meltdown last December.

But United’s issues have been more contained than at Southwest. As previously mentioned, most cancellations were at Newark, though also elevated above normal levels at its other hubs. Maybe that’s because United was more prepared for the situation. Or maybe because United is a hub-and-spoke airline where most planes fly out from a hub on a spoke and then back, whereas Southwest is a point-to-point airline where a plane can start its day on the East Coast and fly to the West Coast via four or five cities.

And there have been no suggestions that United’s technology was not up to snuff in the same way Southwest’s was not. That said, United crews have faced hours-long waits to receive new assignments from the airline this week, an issue that has been attributed to crew desk staffing more than anything else.

Both the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represent pilots and cabin crew at the airline, highlighted in separate statements inadequate staffing for crew scheduling functions as a significant contributor to the continued issues. They said Kirby’s criticism of the FAA was an effort to “deflect blame” from the airline’s own issues.

“What’s happened in the northeast this past week is a good reminder of how vulnerable we [all] are to thunderstorms and weather,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said at an investor event Tuesday.

One question, whether United had scheduled too many flights at Newark — in other words, overscheduled — and was thus more prone to disruptions there can be dismissed. The FAA limits the airport to 79 operations an hour; one takeoff or landing is an “operation.” Total airline operations at Newark were scheduled under that limit for every hour, except the 8 p.m. hour, on an average Monday in June, according to Cirium Diio data. However, if one reduces operations by 10%, or to 71 an hour, as the FAA has allowed this summer, six hours after 2 p.m. are above the limit.

“This week, United proved that no matter how well you prepare, anyone can have their operation torn to pieces,” Brett Snyder wrote on the Cranky Flier blog Wednesday. “It just takes poorly-placed weather and an under-functioning air traffic control system. Next time, it’ll be someone else’s turn.”

Updated with comments from the ALPA and AFA unions.

Edward Russell

June 29th, 2023

Tags: North America

Photo credit: United airplanes at Newark Airport with Manhattan in the background Flickr / jpellgen