We are now one month removed from the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement that it would beg airlines to reduce flying in the New York City area this summer to help relieve congestion. Most airlines have made adjustments, but the results weren’t exactly what I thought we’d see. It’s time for a breakdown using Cirium data.
The FAA announcement effectively asked airlines to fly less this summer due to a lack of staffing in air traffic control. To help ease congestion, FAA said airlines at all three of the primary New York airports could decide to not use up to 10 percent of their slots (or runway timings at Newark) and be able to keep them after the summer is over. This is a change from the normal “use it or lose it” policy, and I expected some airlines to take advantage.
In the end, nearly all airlines took advantage of the opportunity but it hasn’t resulted in a 10 percent reduction across the board when comparing year-over-year. Why? Well, let’s go to the numbers.
Let’s start with departures year-over-year from all three New York City airports. I took a sample week later in July to avoid any holiday impacts, and I focused on domestic departures since last year there were still significant hurdles internationally.
July Sample Week YoY Domestic Departures from New York Airports
Might as well clear out the easy ones first…. Southwest has clearly decided not to engage. It has no Newark or JFK flying, so this is all LaGuardia slots, and it will be flying them all this summer. That’s not a surprise for an airline that just doesn’t have that many in the first place.
Then there’s American and JetBlue, both airlines I thought might not participate. But participate they did, and they have pulled their departures down in line with what you might expect to see. The other three airlines however, well, they may look a little different than expected.
Let’s start with United, because that’s an easy one. How is it that United is actually increasing flying? Well, we have to remember what happened last summer to put that in context.
United Domestic Newark Departures by Month
Back in the summer of 2019, United was running about 10,000 monthly domestic flights from Newark. Once air travel came roaring back lats year, it was ready to exceed that number. But then… gridlock. The airline quickly reduced domestic departures by 12 percent.
Only having to cut by 10 percent this year must feel like quite a victory for the airline. It is actually up over last year for that reason.
Spirit is up as well, but of course, that’s off a very small base. Spirit had bigger plans to grow, but it did scale those back a bit in recent weeks. Still, it has more flights than last year, and that’s in both Newark and LaGuardia. It’s just up less than it originally planned.
Lastly, we have Delta. What is up with Delta being nearly flat? The airline did reduce flying, including another 2 percent haircut last week to try to bolster its operation systemwide. But if we break airports down, there is a little more to consider here.
Newark is a rounding error for Delta, so no need to think about that. But at LaGuardia, departures are down 2.1 percent while JFK is actually up 1 percent. Delta spokesperson Drake Castaneda explains the JFK issue:
Last spring and even into the beginning of summer there were many restrictions on international travel and with many of our domestic flights into JFK carrying connections to/from international we scheduled lower levels of flying as a result.
International may be booming this year, but last year that was not the case. Put it this way. During the July sample week, international departures for Delta at JFK are up 22 percent over last year. With far fewer flights last year, you need fewer domestic departures to feed those flights. This year a lot more would have come back if not for the pulldown.
As for LaGuardia, it seems a bit murkier. Drake did say that summer planning was done during the peak of Omicron and “the demand environment was severely depressed.” But as far as I recall, the slot usage waiver from COVID times expired for domestic travel before last summer, so you couldn’t just opt to not fly them without there being risk.
Of course, slot rules don’t require 100 percent usage at all times, so there was some slack available for Delta. And let’s also remember that while LaGuardia is mostly domestic, there were Canadian flights which Delta could keep out of the schedule last summer using the international waiver. That would have at least had a minor downward impact on overall numbers at LaGuardia.
This wasn’t mentioned by Delta, but I also wonder if ongoing construction at the new terminal for Delta could have had an impact on what it could fly last year. But that’s just speculation.
Regardless, the current filed capacity suggests that FAA isn’t going to get nearly as much relief as it would have liked when compared to last year. During the sample week in July, overall departures (including international) from Newark are showing up 7.4 percent while JFK is up 3.9 percent. Only LaGuardia is actually down, but that’s by 2.3 percent.
Not that this is an issue for air traffic control, but airlines have dealt with this issue by upgauging to use larger airplanes this summer. That means seats are up 12 percent in Newark, 6 percent at JFK, and down only 1 percent at LaGuardia.
If FAA was hoping for relief versus last year’s stressed system, it isn’t getting that. And if travelers were hoping for more elbow room, they won’t be getting that either. At least growth will be lower than planned, so if there’s gridlock thanks to FAA failures to properly staff, just remember it could have been worse.