q What Relief Will Airlines Give FAA This Summer? – Cranky Flier

What Relief Will Airlines Give FAA This Summer?

Government Regulation

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.

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29 comments on “What Relief Will Airlines Give FAA This Summer?

  1. For those curious, here’s the official FAA webpage on the nation’s airspace: https://nasstatus.faa.gov/map

    The “Map View” is a good quick look at current state, but often the operations plan (click on “List View”, scroll to the bottom of the webpage, and click on “View Full Operations Plan”). That gives an idea of what the plans & risks are for rest of the day and is updated roughly hourly.

    Once or twice I’ve seen a snarky comment in the ops plan, such as when one ATC/FAA group blames another for the congestion it is dealing with & the resulting delays. Also worth watching for: Ground stops that a particular carrier imposes on its own initiative (often this is done when a major hub is getting hammered by weather).

  2. On one hand, some airlines are squatting on slots that they don’t want to be flying. On the other hand, there are airlines that want more slots.

    Are airlines allowed to lease slots to each other? If not, why in the world not? If so, why doesn’t the market fix this?

    1. In theory they probably could lease them assuming there are no antitrust concerns, but they won’t because the reason that airlines squat on slots is to ensure that their competitors *do not* get them.

    2. Airlines can and do lease slots to one another. More commonly, domestic airlines horse trade slots among themselves in JFK, LGA and DCA. The FAA brokers a 2x annual meeting where airlines gather and swap slots, usually for time improvements.

    3. I guess that makes sense, although I am naively surprised that the fright about competitors gaining ground is so great that the market price for a slot lease becomes too high for a deal to make sense.

  3. Delta could consider moving their BDL-LGA service to BDL-BOS to offer at least some north-south and European connections (without schlepping all the way to ATL or DTW) if they have the terminal capacity.

    And I’d love to know why FAA has such a hard time with Jacksonville ARTCC. Is it a local recruiting/training problem, or a problem that no one recruited elsewhere wants to move to Jacksonville? There’s a tendency to think of Jacksonville as being in the same general category as the Miami, Tampa, and Orlando metro areas, but it’s much smaller – the city is the largest by population and square mileage, but only because Jacksonville and Duval County have consolidated city/county government where the Big 3 don’t. It also has a bit of a…not sure how to put this nicely…”backward?” image, I’ve know several people here in Tampa Bay that turned down jobs because either they or their wives didn’t want to move to Jacksonville.

    (Actually, it’s the Really Big One and the Big But Not As Big Two – the Miami metro area officially has twice the population as Tampa/St Pete/Clearwater, but there’s always some debate around what should be in which metro area. But the point remains that Jacksonville-Duval is not in the same category as Tampa or Orlando.)

      1. True – the “Fantasy of Flight” attraction in Polk City (sadly scaled down these days) used to have “Welcome to Downtown Ortampa” signs posted.

    1. The FAA does not recruit locally. When you’re hired as a controller and finish training, you are assigned to a facility.

      1. I did not know that, thanks! But unless new controllers have some say in whether or not to accept a facility assignment, it still raises the question as to why Jacksonville ARTCC seems to have more problems than others. Something other than staffing?

    2. BOS – BDL is not a good flight idea. It’s under 2 hours in a car and it’s easier to get to both Hartford and Springfield via highway than Bradley airport if you consider using a bus.

      1. I’m thinking for people looking to make connections, not for travelers who’s final destination is BOS.

        1. That’s my other point. There is no reason to make a connection when it’s a sub 2-hour drive to the hub when you can just drive to Logan and park or take a bus. The only intra-New England flight that might make any sense for a non-Cape Air airline would be BGR-BOS or maybe PQI – BOS.

          1. Hartford/Springfield area to LGA is a haul, with a LOT of traffic uncertainty, especially for travelers who likely aren’t a comfortable with NYC traffic, delays, etc.

            Flights from nearby cities (cities that are “sub 2-hour drives”) to hubs are common nearly everywhere,. In Michigan you have places like GRR and LAN to DTW. In Georgia you have Chattanooga, Columbus, Athens, etc to ATL. ORD sees regular flights to MKE and various cities in Central IL. IAD gets flights to Richmond, Charlottesville, etc… The list goes on.

            While may have lessened somewhat given that turboprops and RJs are becoming less economical to run, that’s really the traditional role of a hub, to help connect people to/from cities in the geographic area that the hub serves.

            While a <200 mile flight may seem a little ridiculous on the surface, it does create value for connecting travelers, as it adds convenience and removes the uncertainty of fighting big city traffic (and the resulting additional time that one must allow) to get to the hub… Not to mention the fact that flying out of a mid-sized city or small town airport often saves significant time (from when one parks the car or gets dropped off at the curb, to when one gets on the plane) versus doing the same at a big hub airport.

        2. I was chatting with a friend who is a controller and he was telling me that almost all facilities are understaffed, and controllers are not allowed to request a transfer unless their facility is “healthy.”

    3. Jacksonville ARTCC is in Hilliard, about 25 miles north of Jacksonville. It is more south Georgia than north Florida.

  4. Amtrak could come in quite handy in this situation if the airlines were to work something out. Not just the NEC, but the Empire corridor as well.

  5. Amtrak seems like they could come in very handy if they’re equipped to handle the added demand (I know they’ve been struggling lately with staffing too). I’m not from the area so I’m curious how the breakdown of people flying vs training vs driving works. NYC to DC seems like one of the most ripe corridors for taking the train over flying.

    1. There are more than a dozen airports along the NEC & branches including BDL, HVN, PVD & the obvious ones. Nearly all of them have nearby Amtrak service & this should reduce some congestion if advertised effectively.

  6. How much of this could be avoided or mitigated if the air traffic control system is modernized?

    1. I think technology could help greatly but like much of the US, most things are out dated and done in labor intensive ways. Reminds me every time someone freaks out over self driving cars and screaming “People will die!”. I guess they don’t realize how many people get injured or die every year in car accidents, most all are avoidable but due to inattention accidents happen.

  7. I’m sorry you’re wrong, Jetblue pulled back as much as 35% in jfk starting in may , their CEO already said they cut flying, you know what they say when you assume…

  8. You will see JetBlue pull back at JFK, along with AA (regardless of the NEA) and DL will also trim schedules. JetBlue can’t complete a schedule on the sunniest of days without major operational issues, so it is to its advantage to pull back. American has used slot waivers before to trim JFK flying and it would surprise no one to see those E175s flying to RDU, RIC, CVG, etc…temporarily suspended. American did just that in 2018-2019 when runway construction was happening at JFK and then got those slots waived further into the pandemic.

    As to DL, its overly ambitious TATL schedule for Summer 2023 seems to be faltering, with ARN, CPH, GVA, BER cut to seasonal and likely we’ll see more such announcements, but as far as cuts go, things like DL service to IAD, BDL, Binghampton, etc.. from LGA/JFK can and should be cut.

  9. Other sources say that it was Delta and United that asked the FAA for the waiver and since both cut their capacity last summer – Delta across its system and United specifically in EWR – in order to improve their operational reliability – which both achieved – they might have been the first two to ask but other airlines will take advantage of the slot usage waiver.
    Pilot staffing is clearly factoring into the use of this waiver. NYC is regional jet heavy so reduced numbers of RJ flights but larger mainline flights helps. JBLU is also struggling to staff its operation so they will certainly be interested.

    It is noteworthy that the DOT has been hard on airlines to improve their staffing but a year after the sudden return of domestic demand, the FAA is still far from ready for normal operations. While some senators are pushing to raise the pilot retirement age, no such effort is being made to raise the age for air traffic controllers which have a lower retirement age than ATCers. If age doesn’t really indicate how well pilots can do their job, then the same type of assessment should be applied to air traffic controllers.

    As for the comment about Delta and seasonal transatlantic flight cuts, it is hardly revolutionary or an indication of anything nefarious that Delta, just like American and United, has a reduced schedule for the winter, esp. to/from Northern Europe. There is still far more capacity during off-peak seasons going longer into the winter than was the case pre-covid, primarily to southern Europe and core joint venture hubs. Demand for transatlantic travel is very strong and both DL and UA, which have plenty of widebodies, are using them aggressively to Europe this summer. AA is also adding lots of additional transatlantic service even w/ a smaller widebody fleet.

    As for the cities that any airline operates from slot-controlled or heavily congested airports, the market is either deregulated and airlines are free to add what makes sense to the airline’s bottom line, including carrying different levels of connections on different routes, or the market is regulated and the government dictates how assets have to be used. Those that argue that airline X shouldn’t be flying a route can’t have it both ways. If you want the airline industry re-regulated, then argue fully for that and bear the consequences of less consumer choice and higher fares.

  10. Am I the only one that’s reading this request as an “oh shit, its gonna be HORRIBLE this summer” warning – and now Pete’s gonna turn around, blame the airlines for aweful delays in NY, claiming “we warned you!”. I see this as nothing more than a bureaucratic CYA action.

    Its gonna be brutal.

  11. What is happening to the development of Air Traffic Surveillance. Wasn’t the goal to move off of direct controller oversight and to a monitor situation? Is this a pie in the sky goal requiring AI or is it a matter of government not sure how to pull it off???

  12. N90 staffing shortages were an issue back when I worked at PANYNJ, more than 10 years ago. It’s beyond crazy that the FAA didn’t prioritize staffing there as it’s among the busiest centers in the country and it’s been the one with the worst shortages in the entire system. I’ve heard many reasons as to why there have been shortages, but heads need to roll as it’s been a serious issue for more than a decade and there’s been no initiative to fix it.

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Cranky Flier