May 30, 2024

© Ted Shaffrey/AP
A plane takes off from Newark Liberty International Airport.

A severe shortage of air traffic controllers at a key facility in New York is threatening to deliver another summer of misery for air travelers, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to ask airlines how the industry can avoid a repeat as travel demand rises.

The agency hosted industry leaders for a meeting this past week on how to best manage congested airspace around New York and asked airlines to operate fewer flights while using larger planes to ease traffic. Airlines say they are willing to work with the FAA, but some have signaled frustration as they rebound from the pandemic.

The situation illustrates the industry’s continued bumpy recovery from the pandemic and how seemingly local challenges can spread throughout the aviation system, with airlines saying problems in New York also will affect Reagan National Airport outside Washington. The FAA’s efforts are a push to get in front of a looming problem and avoid another peak travel season marred by delays, cancellations and recriminations between airline executives and FAA officials that broke out last summer.

Disruptions between New York and Washington from the worker shortage could come in the form of delays or fewer flight options. The FAA said air traffic volumes between the two regions made the nation’s capital a likely target for carriers seeking to consolidate flights.

The central problem is a lack of air traffic controllers at a facility on Long Island known as the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), or N90, which coordinates flights in and out of John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport. The FAA said safety measures put in place during the pandemic affected training, and while staffing has caught up at most other FAA facilities, the New York center remains behind.

In a notice late last month, the FAA said New York’s TRACON was staffed at 54 percent of the level it needs, compared with 81 percent at other air traffic control facilities. At the same time, the FAA forecasts that air traffic to the region will increase 7 percent this summer compared to last summer, which the agency says could translate into 45 percent higher delays.

“The FAA is taking several steps to keep air travel to and from New York City this summer safe and smooth, even as we see strong domestic demand and a return of pre-pandemic international traffic,” the agency said in a statement.

After airline close calls, industry highlights covid workforce disruptions

American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, compared flying into airspace over New York to being invited into a room with 1,000 spinning plates and being told to be careful where you step. Problems there, Tajer said, could easily ripple through the rest of the aviation system.

“It’s an intensely orchestrated hub-and-spoke system, so when one of the hubs is delayed, it’s not just a trickle, it’s a wave that goes out from there,” Tajer said.

As a short-term fix, the FAA has told airlines they can set aside takeoff and landing slots at JFK, LaGuardia and National, encouraging carriers to use larger planes and to be transparent with passengers about the potential for disruptions. The slots are coveted, allowing access to the nation’s most tightly controlled airports — typically awarded on a use it-or-lose it basis.

Airlines have until April 30 to make a decision, but some already have expressed interest in the FAA’s deal.

United Airlines and Delta Air Lines both said they would aim to use larger planes to the “extent possible” on flights to New York and National, and communicate with the public about how they plan to minimize disruptions if the FAA approves the changes to the rules for slots.

JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes laid out the challenge at an event in recent days hosted by the Economic Club of New York: “Even though we’re ready, we’ve got our planes, we hired pilots, we’ve rented the gates, JetBlue and other airlines are going to have to cut flights in and out of New York this summer in order to cope.”

Hayes said JetBlue, which is based in Queens, is especially vulnerable because almost 60 percent of the carrier’s flights each day are in and out of New York, leaving the airline no option but to cut flights.

American Airlines said it was “still evaluating” the idea, while Southwest Airlines said it had no plans to reduce its schedule at LaGuardia.

Problems at the New York facility are long-standing and have led to clashes in the past between FAA management and the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers labor union. In 2005, the FAA said abuses by some controllers and bad management by the agency led to about $4 million in unnecessary overtime. In return, controllers anonymously reported potential safety issues to the FAA that had previously been overlooked by management.

Michael McCormick, a former manager at the facility, said it never fully recovered from the 1981 air traffic controller strike that led President Ronald Reagan to fire striking workers. McCormick said efforts like changing the rules for slots will only be short-term fixes.

“It’s hard to attract and retain people,” said McCormick, now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “To cover those staffing shortfalls, they’ve had to use a lot of overtime, which in turn creates its own problems.”

Last summer airlines tried shifting blame, but they were the biggest cause of delays

The FAA says it plans to shift responsibility for the Newark airspace to a facility in Philadelphia, potentially easing the burden in New York. But that idea is opposed by the controllers’ union, which has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the area’s congressman, Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Transportation Committee.

Matt Capp, a spokesman for D’Esposito, said the congressman would advocate for staff at the facility as the committee considers FAA funding legislation this year.

Rich Santa, president of the air traffic controllers union, said in recent congressional testimony the union and the FAA had recently completed a fresh assessment of its workforce needs across the country. Santa said the number of controllers has declined 1,200 nationwide over the past decade to about 10,600, putting pressure on the system, and that past estimates did not provide an accurate picture of shortfalls.

Last year, the FAA and airlines tried to tackle similar problems affecting airspace in Florida. The agency boosted staffing at a facility there and worked with carriers to minimize disruptions.

But the government and airlines clashed that summer over who was at fault for delayed and canceled flights. Data that airlines submit to the FAA showed last summer that carriers were responsible for an unusually high share of the disruptions. The Southwest Airlines meltdown over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays was almost entirely the result of the airline’s organizational and technological problems.

But the failure of an FAA safety bulletin system in January also showed the government’s systems were vulnerable. The system was quickly brought back online but thousands of flights were delayed.

Lori Aratani contributed to this report.