Slow action by U.S. authorities to address the air traffic controller shortage is hurting travelers and making it tough to do business, JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes said Tuesday.
Despite knowing that it will take several years for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to address a 3,000-person air traffic controller shortage, Hayes said the agency and the Department of Transportation have not done enough to ease the operational limits from lower staffing levels. The biggest piece of that is granting airlines waivers to flight rules at the busy New York City-area airports months in advance. This would allow for time to plan the best flight schedules that maximize the number of seats to New York with fewer flights.
“The system can’t cope with the number of flights today,” Hayes said on the sidelines of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Aerospace Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. “We’re selling flights we know we won’t be able to operate because of ATC challenges.”
Despite a 10% reduction in flights at New York JFK and LaGuardia, and Newark airports this summer, flight delays and cancellations soared. United Airlines was beset with issues at Newark that rippled across the country in the weeks before the July Fourth holiday and prompted it to make deeper flight cuts at the airport in August. And airlines faced 30 straight days of air traffic control or weather-related capacity restrictions at JFK in June and July.
The FAA waiver of slot and runway timing usage rules at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark was welcome but it came “quite late,” Hayes said. It was issued on March 22, just four days before the airline industry began its official summer schedule season on March 26. And an extension to that waiver through the end of October was only issued on August 9 — again, very late in the airline scheduling process.
Airlines publish and begin selling flights as much as a year in advance. However, those schedules are fluid until about 90 days, or three months, out. The FAA’s initial waiver in March came just 66 days before the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer travel in the U.S.
“We have to get ahead of this,” Hayes said.
Airlines for America (A4A) CEO Nicholas Calio said at the summit that he has asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to issue a similar flight waiver for the New York-area airports through the end of next summer. The waiver is necessary because airlines are required to use their slots and runway timings 80% of the time or risk losing them.
“Because of [the air traffic controller shortage], the same weather that, in the past, we could have managed through, it now can cause hundreds of delays, or even hundreds of cancellations,” United CEO Scott Kirby said at the summit.
The FAA is not entirely at fault for the situation. Its every-five-year reauthorization bill, which includes more funding for air traffic control staffing, is stalled in Congress. Representative Garret Graves (R-La.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee in the House, said at the summit that they are moving towards passing a continuing resolution to keep the FAA open after its current authorization expires on October 1.
In addition, the FAA has been without a confirmed administrator since March 2022 when Steve Dickson left the post. President Biden nominated former deputy administrator and United executive Michael Whitaker for the job earlier in September after his first nominee, Denver airport head Phil Washington, withdrew in March.
Kirby, Hayes, Calio, and other airline executives at the summit all called on the Senate to move quickly to confirm Whitaker to the FAA administrator job.