There has been a shortage of air traffic controllers in the US building for ages, and things became more dire during the pandemic. Now, we’ve learned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still is unable to properly staff up, and so it has resorted to begging the airlines to help avoid disaster this summer. Will any of them help? Probably, but not all.
The FAA has posted notice of its plan which will be in effect from May 15 through September 15 of this year. This is strange since it’s just a portion of the actual summer season from a slot perspective, but it is when FAA is most concerned that there will be gridlock in the skies over the Northeast.
This plan will allow airlines to surrender up to 10 percent of their slots at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports along with Washington/National (since many of the flights the FAA hopes airlines will ditch involve New York – Washington flying). Further, they can not operate up to 10 percent of their runway timings at Newark and not be penalized in future periods. This is only a temporary surrender during that summer period, and it in effect just allows airlines to not fly their slots but still avoid losing them.
Why exactly is this happening? It’s “due to postpandemic effects on Air Traffic Controller (ATC) staffing at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility (N90).”
A TRACON is the facility that manages the airspace for arriving and departing aircraft. Once they leave the immediate airport area, airplanes transfer from the tower to a TRACON. And once they clear the area, they are sent to one of the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) which handle the high altitude flying across the country. N90 is one of the busiest TRACONs in the country since it’s a combined facility that sits on top of all the New York City airports for now.
That makes it all the more incredible that the FAA didn’t prioritize staffing this up early on, but then again, some of the airspace is being reassigned in New Jersey to to the PHL TRACON. Problem is… that doesn’t happen until after summer, so FAA is begging for help.
The two big problem spots are in the Northeast and in Florida where Jacksonville ARTCC has been a mess. There’s not much the FAA can do in Florida, however, since the airports down there don’t have slots. In the Northeast, it has more options since airports are more controlled. And now it’s hoping that by just offering airlines the ability to scale back without penalty, it will be able to find some relief for the upcoming summer.
The question is… will any airlines volunteer? Probably.
It’s probably a safe bet that airlines with smaller presence in the area won’t scale back. Imagine Spirit or Frontier or even Southwest. These are airlines that would like a lot more slots in the region, and they don’t have a lot now. It seems highly unlikely any of them would do anything. That leaves us with the big four in the area: American (JFK, LaGuardia, National), Delta (JFK, LaGuardia), JetBlue (JFK), and United (Newark).
American and JetBlue seem like unlikely participants in this plan. After all, their agreement with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to allow their Northeast Alliance (NEA) partnership says that in 2023 they must operate 110 percent of the seats at JFK and LaGuardia that they operated in 2018/2019. I don’t know if DOT has offered to waive that requirement, but it would certainly require an extra step, and one that I’m sure DOJ would hate to see. Even if so, it seems unlikely that American and JetBlue would pull back.
That would leave the two big airlines, and both seem willing to play ball.
United may have seemed like an obvious participant. After all, it has done it at Newark before when it received permission to pull back without penalty in previous periods. That being said, it’s a lot easier to do something like that when you aren’t going into what could very well be the strongest demand for summer travel ever. But United will work to upgauge remaining flights so it can still serve as much of the demand as it can.
As for Delta, well, it has been doing a lot of slot-squatting lately, so that would likely explain its willigness to join in. There is not as much slack, but the airline still has three daily roundtrips from LaGuardia to Hartford, Albany, and Providence, for example. Those seem ripe to be reduced, along with several high frequency markets like the 11x daily to Washington/National that can be brought down.
For travelers, this is a good news/bad news situation. Fewer flights mean fares will rise above their already incredibly high levels for the summer. It’s simple supply and demand. But this isn’t just a New York issue. Let’s say Delta does cut 2 of the 3 Hartford flights, for example. That’s around 150 seats that Hartford travelers could have used to connect elsewhere that are now gone.
On the good side, well, New York may only see delays for most of the day instead of all of it. Any kind of reduction helps to free up capacity and that is good for operations. It’s a terrible thing that travelers either get acceptable reliability or low fares and not both, but such is life in the Northeast.