A growing shortage of federal air traffic controllers has been “a factor” in at least one-third of recent flight cancellations as the busy Fourth of July weekend approaches, the airline industry reported Friday.
Airlines for America, a nonprofit group that represents the nation’s 10 major passenger and cargo air carriers, made the claim in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, shared with The Washington Times.
The group’s CEO, Nicholas Calio, who met virtually with Mr. Buttigieg and airline chiefs a week ago, wrote that the Federal Aviation Administration has not shared its staffing plan for air traffic controllers during the July 4 weekend with the nation’s air carriers, even though the Transportation Security Administration has done so for bag handlers.
According to the letter, the FAA admitted “a needed increase in staff” at a May 3 airline industry summit in Florida.
“We appreciate the FAA’s acknowledgment of controller staffing challenges and would like to request a meeting to discuss how we can work together to better understand FAA’s controller staffing plan for the upcoming July 4th weekend and summer travel season,” Mr. Calio wrote in the letter.
He added that Florida’s Jacksonville International Airport “has been understaffed for 27 of the last 30 days, which is crippling to the entire East Coast traffic.”
The letter presents the request as a “follow-up” to the virtual meeting Mr. Buttigieg held with airline CEOs on June 16, shortly before his Friday morning flight from Washington to New York was canceled.
At that meeting, Mr. Buttigieg blamed flight cancellations on airline staffing shortages and said the federal government could force carriers to hire more workers if the situation doesn’t improve.
The Department of Transportation did not respond on Friday to a request for comment.
The FAA told The Times in a statement that it had already “acted on the issues raised in the letter.”
“The agency has added alternate routes and placed more controllers in high demand areas, and increased data sharing,” the FAA said in an email.
The email added: “People expect when they buy an airline ticket that they’ll get where they need to go safely, efficiently, reliably and affordably. After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief to help save the airlines from mass layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve to have their expectations met.”
Shortages of pilots, flight attendants and other airline staff have caused a growing number of flight delays and cancellations this year, stranding weary passengers at airports for hours as travel returns to pre-pandemic levels.
The nation’s airlines, which laid off employees during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, have been unable to rehire enough people to meet the surge of people eager to travel this year.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 54,992 flights were canceled in January and February, 5.3% of all flights, the highest ever recorded for the first two months of the year.
The problem has grown since the start of summer. More than 2,500 flights were canceled during Memorial Day weekend.
June travelers have described chaos at North American and European airports, with luggage lost and wait times to board planes exceeding four hours.
Last Friday during the extended holiday weekend, TSA said it screened more than 2.4 million travelers at security checkpoints. That was the highest volume since the Sunday after Thanksgiving and roughly 100,000 more travelers than the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.
On Sunday, the day of Father’s Day and Juneteenth, the flight-tracking website FlightAware said 6,204 U.S. flights were delayed and 2,702 canceled.
As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, airlines say they’ve done everything possible to reduce flight interruptions through scheduling tweaks and offers of pay increases for pilots.
In his Friday letter, Mr. Calio told Mr. Buttigieg that carriers have canceled 15% of the June-August flights they planned at the start of the year, improved travel apps, made it easier for passengers to switch flights, and fast-tracked “robust hiring and training programs in all areas, including flight crew, customer service agents and airport staff in addition to increasing pay for many positions.”
Also on Friday, United Airlines pilots’ union approved a tentative deal that would give them a 14% salary raise over the next 18 months, eight-week paid maternity leave and increased pay for overtime and training.
The United Master Executive Council said in a tweet that the union’s 14,000 members have until July 15 to vote on the two-year deal.
United is one of several airlines that have recently cut summer flights in an effort to eliminate delays.
In a memo to employees on Thursday, Chief Operating Officer Jon Roitman announced the removal of 50 domestic flights from the airline’s summer schedule at New Jersey’s Newark International Airport because of congestion challenges.
Mr. Roitman said the policy, which takes effect July 1, will reduce flight delays.
“Travel demand in Newark has never been stronger and we will continue to partner with the FAA and Port Authority so we can reinstate these 50 daily departures and revert to a full schedule from Newark as soon as possible,” he wrote.
Delta, American and Southwest pilots are negotiating similar deals.
Pilots from several airlines have started protesting outside airports, accusing carriers of exhausting them to try to keep up with demand.
On Tuesday, an estimated 1,300 Southwest pilots picketed outside a Texas airport.
In a statement emailed to The Times, Southwest said it is operating at its “peak summer flight schedule” across 121 airports in 11 countries.
“We’ve been hard at work to prepare for this busy season and have taken numerous steps aimed toward supporting operational performance,” the statement reads.
Southwest added that it has hired more than 14,500 employees over the past 12 months and is “on track” to hire more than 10,000 people this year.