Air traffic

How Florida’s Air Traffic Control Issues Are Affecting Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines alleged staffing levels at the Jacksonville air traffic control center were a bottleneck to the airline’s full resumption of service to the US state of Florida. Spirit Airlines chief commercial officer Matt Klein even went so far as to comment on Spirit Airlines’ second quarter 2022 earnings call,

While we are seeing good revenue results from the network changes we have made, we are still limited on the number of flights we can operate into the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center. To put that into context, Florida to the continental United States represents approximately 40% of our network. If this constraint did not exist, Florida to the continental United States would probably be closer to 50% of our network.

As a result, Spirit Airlines (even with the likely upcoming acquisition by JetBlue) is in financial trouble. In fact, Spirit Airlines for the 2nd quarter of 2022, recorded a net loss of $52.4 million.

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The CEO of United Airlines and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association are also concerned

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and National Air Traffic Controller Chief Rich Santa are concerned about air traffic controller staffing levels.

Photo: Raymond Wambsgans
by Flickr

Spirit Airlines is not alone in this concern. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby made general comments about the US air traffic control system during a July 11 “Inside the Bubble” podcast with Andy Slavitt. Kirby claimed,

We can’t fly our full schedules because the air traffic control system can’t support the number of flights that existed before. … In the last four months, we estimate that 75% of our cancellations were for FAA-mandated delay programs.

Rich Santa, head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, also complained publicly. According to a July 26 Reuters report, Santa spoke to Washington D.C. about staffing the Jacksonville Center with only 205 certified air traffic controllers and, as of the end of July 2022, 50 trainees against a need for 275 air traffic controllers. Santa Claus said, however, that other reasons for operational impacts in this area stem from more commercial space launches, extreme weather events and airline operational challenges.

The work of the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center

Air traffic control requires great attention to detail, as shown in this photo of a terminal radar approach control center display.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) webpage on the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center, the center helps control aircraft in midair from sea level to 60,000 feet above sea level. This is relative to approach centers that handle air traffic fifty miles or closer to an airport when planes arrive or depart, as Simple Flying describes. However, the center covers around twenty military airports and around 225 civil airports, with airlines accounting for around 50% of demand, 30% for general aviation and 20% for military air operations.

Air traffic controllers work as a team to prevent mid-air collisions, warn of potential weather events and other hazards, and, if necessary, help coordinate emergency response. For the center, there is a radar controller who dialogues with the pilots and manages a sector of the airspace. There is an associated radar controller who reads flight plans, warns of potential airspace conflicts, and coordinates with other air traffic controllers. Sometimes a tracker is also assigned during periods of high air traffic to help.

Working in air traffic control requires about two and a half years of training to become qualified. Even when qualified, an air traffic controller must participate in refresher training.

Do you think Spirit Airlines’ complaint is justified? Let us know in the comments.

Sources: Federal Aviation Administration, July 11, 2022 In the bubble, July 26, 2022 Reuters