Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are pointing fingers over the main culprit behind the delays and cancellations plaguing air travelers this summer.
Airlines for America, an industry trade group that represents the carriers, sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last month, saying that air traffic control staffing issues in a few key centers are causing a significant number of delays, even on some clear -weather days.
For its part, the FAA said there are no major nationwide staffing issues, but acknowledged that some centers have had problems this summer.
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Is there an air traffic control staff shortage?
It’s complicated. FAA hiring and training were severely affected by the pandemic, so the pipeline for new air traffic controllers is backed up.
“While there have been staffing issues for a few hours at a few facilities due to COVID-19 and other factors, there is not a system-wide air traffic controller staffing shortage,” the FAA said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY. “We are not seeing a greater-than-expected attrition but COVID temporarily delayed some training.”
Bill Coyne, program coordinator for the air traffic management program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, agrees that any controller shortages seem to be isolated and are not necessarily indicative of a larger problem.
“You’d have to look at it facility by facility,” he said, adding that it can take years for a new air traffic controller to become fully qualified. Plus, Coyne said, hiring more air traffic controllers would require more funding.
“I do believe the FAA is doing as best they can within the budget they have, the constraints they have there, to hire as many as they can,” he said.
What do air traffic control issues mean for travelers?
Air traffic control staffing issues are rarely the sole cause of a delay, but they can compound other problems, like weather delays, and lead to passengers getting stuck on the ground for longer.
“Numerous factors are contributing to air travel delays and cancellations,” the FAA’s statement said. “The number one cause for delays and cancellation of flights by airlines is convective weather. Second is demand for travel.”
Summer thunderstorms or winter blizzards can force air traffic controllers to limit the number of planes allowed in the area they cover, and a short-staffed tower may have to impose greater restrictions.
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Coyne said he tries to stay up-to-date about delays by checking his airline’s website or app, and he tries to find alternatives as quickly as possible if something looks like it could go wrong.
“I’m a traveler, too,” Coyne said. “In the Southeast, the thing I’m most concerned about is the weather.”
What else is causing flight delays and cancellations this summer?
Although airlines say FAA staffing levels are an issue this summer, the FAA itself – and many other industry experts – say it’s staffing at the airlines that is the bigger problem.
“The lack of pilots is the bottleneck,” Courtney Miller, founder of Visual Approach Analytics, an aviation data analysis firm, previously told USA TODAY. “That’s the first limitation we’re hitting right now.”
Airlines this summer have had to cut flights and even end service to some destinations as they try to match their schedules to the number of pilots and other professionals on their payrolls.