Delta received quite a gift from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) late last week when it was granted a slot waiver for operations at LaGuardia, JFK, and partially at Washington/National. This allows the airline to not fly even the bare minimum required for slots this summer and still hold on to them for the future. I can’t say I agree with the FAA’s decision-making here.
In Delta’s request, it provided four reasons why the FAA should allow it to keep its slots even though it wouldn’t be able to meet the already generous minimum flying requirements. Those reasons are:
- Airport construction at LaGuardia reduced available gates for Delta from 34 to 30. Gates and hardstands at JFK were also reduced due to construction on neighboring Terminal 1.
- Air traffic control delays in summer 2022 were higher than in summer 2019.
- There has been more severe weather in summer 2022 than in previous years.
- Crews are calling in sick at much higher levels in 2022 than in previous years.
When you read this, you probably say “no shit, Sherlock.” With the exception of the first point, these are issues that are hitting the entire industry, and not all airlines have run such poor operations as Delta this summer. You’ll remember Delta’s operation was very bad in June, and it pulled down its schedule from July on to compensate. Other airlines had the foresight to actually do that work further in advance.
It has to be pointed out that Delta is well aware of how slot rules work, and it should have planned to pull down less in New York than it did so it could obey the requirements. And those requirements really aren’t that strict.
The rules say airlines have to utilize slots at 80 percent or they could be at risk in future seasons. If Delta had been able to create a more flyable schedule in the first place, it could have diverted crews and resources to the slot-controlled airports so that it could reach the bare minimum slot requirement. After all, it’s not like the rule is that they have to be flown every single day. Being able to cancel up to 20 percent of flying should be more than enough buffer, and it has been in the past. Delta just says things are different… so let’s look at some numbers.
I took a look at operating data from Anuvu to see how June 1 – August 14 compares between 2019 and 2022 for Delta. To me, the most interesting was LaGuardia since that’s nearly all domestic and is the biggest operation of the three. Here’s how that looks.
The only slot-holding data I could find was for summer 2021, so I’m just assuming those haven’t changed much and provide a good-enough estimate for this year. Assuming that’s the case, you can see Delta is underwater in 2022 after taking into account the canceled flights on top of the slots it hadn’t scheduled.
You’d think the FAA would have told Delta to go pound sand, taken their slots, and then given them out to new entrants/low-cost operators who want to get into the airports, right? Hahahahaha, funny. Nope, they gave Delta a pass.
I initially figured that the waiver would have been granted based on the first point about restricted gates, but no, that was resoundingly shot down. In fact, the FAA said the first three points were hot garbage.
Firing back at Delta’s gate complaint, the FAA said this:
FAA finds that the terminal redevelopment project at LGA has been in planning and underway for years and is nearly complete. Delta’s decision to reduce gate access there is a condition explicitly under its control, as Delta noted in its petition when it stated, “Delta made the difficult but necessary decision to reduce the number of gates at LGA from 34 to 30 – allowing Delta to significantly accelerate the overall construction schedule.”
So Delta reduced its own gates to speed up construction and then said that was reason for it to not be able to use all its slots as required. Brilliant move, but FAA saw right through it.
Oh and the JFK one? That was found to have “only minimal impact in highly irregular operations.” Let’s also remember that the slot waiver remains in place for international flying, so Delta already has the ability to fly less than 80 percent at JFK where it has a hefty international operation. According to Cirium data, JFK had nearly 400 fewer departures this July vs 2019, a decrease of more than 2 percent. That should have been a nice bit of relief.
Regarding air traffic control delays and weather issues, FAA laughed this off, saying that “such cancellations are not highly unusual and are intended to be covered by the 20 percent non-use allowance provided in the minimum usage requirements.” And that makes sense. Allowing airlines to cancel up to 20 percent of flights should be more than enough for an airline that has its ducks in a row. Delta just does not.
Now, it’s not like Delta got everything it wanted. It asked for a waiver from June 1 through September 30 at all three airports. The FAA decided to grant it only through September 5. Further, while it includes all JFK and LaGuardia flights, it only includes Washington/National flights to/from those airports. Still, Delta is pretty pleased, as it should be. I was provided this statement from the airline.
Delta people have worked tirelessly in taking meaningful actions over the summer to restore our operational reliability while working safely and intently to get our customers where they need to be. Our partnership with the FAA to gain slot relief at New York and Washington, DC airports will allow us to continue improving shared challenges and service reliability with minimal impact to customers.
I want to make one more point before I end, because I’m sure some of you will ask the question… isn’t this just like the waiver the feds gave to United at Newark, allowing it to cut flights without allowing anyone else to backfill? It’s not the same.
First and most obvious, LaGuardia, JFK, and National are Level 3
1 airports that have definite slots. Newark is a Level 2 airport which means it has less control on operations. And Newark has seen growth that led to gridlock while LaGuardia didn’t. For example, before the summer began and airlines were forced to pull down, here’s what happened in May according to Cirium data.
Newark shouldn’t be above 2019 levels. It was already jammed, and relief was needed. LaGuardia, however is below 2019 levels, or at least it was in May. Slots put a ceiling on LaGuardia’s operations while Newark’s are more fluid.
I imagine all the smaller airlines begging for more access into these airports will be howling with anger about this decision. Though the FAA warns this is a one-time thing, it seems like a very weak rationale for granting relief. If Delta can’t fly these slots at 80 percent utilization, then other airlines should be able to have the opportunity to do so.