Air traffic

Airline reliability won’t improve until air traffic control is in place

Recently, the US airline industry has struggled to operate reliably during busy travel periods, including this summer so far. Staff shortages were noted as the cause of most, and the availability of pilots in particular has been difficult. For a busy summer, airlines would typically try to operate a high usage schedule with all planes flying. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently received a call with the CEOs of major airlines to discuss what the industry could do to be more reliable. With the July 4 holiday upon us, it’s reasonable to wonder when, if not now, customers can expect airlines to be reliable again.

The problem is that the airlines cannot solve this problem on their own. Yes, they can do a better job scheduling flights that actually have the crew to operate, but they also fly their planes in airspace and airports with their own constraints. Without the proper coordination and staffing of all three, customers will be caught in circumstances beyond the control of any individual airline.

US airlines react, but must do more

American airlines took their meeting with Secretary Buttigieg seriously, and they were working on these issues even before their meeting. Launched mainly by low-cost airlines, but eventually joined by larger ones as well, the industry cut 15% of flights from June to August. Hiring is also at an all-time high, increasing the costs of recruiting, training and even offering sign-up incentives to ensure people at all levels are fully staffed to support peak travel times. . The arrival of thousands of new employees puts pressure on companies in several ways, including maintaining the culture and placing new hires in positions where they can succeed. Cutting flights when demand is high is not what airlines want to do, but they have done it to better align the sales schedule with operational realities. There is still better internal coordination needed at some airlines.

Compensation for many positions in many airlines has increased as there is a need to retain employees in addition to recruiting new ones. When things go wrong, airlines are more lenient on flight changes and have invested in both technology and staff to be able to accommodate disrupted passengers more fully and quickly. These changes don’t mean everything is settled, but to suggest that airlines aren’t reacting aggressively isn’t accurate either. It would be nice to think that airlines could solve the customer reliability problem on their own, but that’s not the reality either.

Air traffic control is also understaffed

Airlines fly in a system managed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control (ATC). ATC manages congested airspace using several tools. One of these is known as Ground Delay Programs (GDPs), aimed at keeping planes grounded longer and not releasing them into the air to cause further congestion. A disproportionate share of air traffic congestion, and therefore delays and cancellations, occurs along the East Coast of the United States. This includes bustling northeast cities like New York and Boston, and Florida. Florida is such a popular flying destination that when Florida slows down, so does much of the country.

Major FAA facilities, such as Jacksonville, have been understaffed almost every day according to the Airline Pilots Association. The FAA would have hired just like the airlines, but when ATC can’t keep up, it even slows down the airlines in staffing. When the weather is difficult, airlines expect to work with ATC on programs to increase aircraft spacing and slow arrival and departure rates in high traffic areas. But even several hours into the start of time, understaffing at ATC sites means mid-morning time is still delaying flights later in the day. The busier the airport, the greater the risk of ATC delays. All hubs operated by major US airlines are, almost by definition, busy airports.

Airlines have asked the FAA for specific assistance

Through their lobby group Airlines For America, US airlines requested specific assistance from the FAA to help get industry reliability back on track. These include a commitment to increase staff, equal to the commitment the secretary has requested from the airlines themselves. Airlines were asked to provide staffing plans for the busy July 4 holiday, so airlines asked the same for ATC. The airlines have also called for better coordination among the multiple federal agencies vying for airspace. These include spaceflight and military activities.

Asking the FAA for help doesn’t stop airlines from doing what they can to ensure a better experience for vacationers. But it is clear that airlines and ATC both have a role to play in restoring reliability to the industry. As consumers, we should expect everyone to take action.

There’s no incentive to be unreliable

With perfect hindsight, airlines shouldn’t have let so many experienced pilots leave properties when the pandemic hit. But faced with massive cash losses and no visibility of a recovery, they had no practical choice. Many have criticized the airlines for waste billions of aid dollars given to airlines for Covid mitigation. But these criticisms miss the fact that most of the money was used to keep at least some of the staff there. Without this help, the problems would be even worse today. That said, airlines need no incentive to operate reliably. Indeed, flight delays and cancellations are very costly for airlines, and not just frustrating for customers.

Airline wages increase during unreliable operations as additional staff are needed as more time is paid for waiting than flying. A plane that arrives late causes customers to be delayed on the next flight, and perhaps the crew will have expired and will need to be replaced. Dealing with displaced customers means airport and call center workers work overtime, and a lot of fuel is wasted as planes wait for takeoff slots or circle for an hour before landing. The fact is that costs are lower and profits can be higher when an airline operates according to the schedule it plans and sells.

Growing need for more efficient air traffic control

The fact that ATC cannot meet the existing demand is a challenge in many ways. Not only does this mean this summer could continue with airline cancellations and delays, but the demand for restricted airspace is growing every day. The growth of private aviation, new technologies like vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOLs or eVTOLs if electric) and commercial drone activity will put great pressure on the use of airspace. The unsurprising reality is that these new uses of airspace will be targeted at the densest cities where air traffic is already a problem, such as New York and Los Angeles.

The country has been talking for decades about a “new generation” for the air traffic control system. The technology should allow planes to operate more closely together while remaining safe, provide more direct routing between cities, and be more proactive when weather or other complex issues arise. When we talk about infrastructure as roads and bridges, it must also include roads and bridges in the air.


So when can customers expect airlines to be reliable again? Well, customers should expect to get what they buy, but also need to be realistic about delays and cancellations. This is most true in often congested airspace, such as New York, Florida, and Southern California. Airlines are doing what they can and have strong incentives to make the system work. The FAA, through ATC, must also ensure that the system we use today operates at maximum throughput today while continuing to invest in increasing capacity over time.