The First New York Operational Mess Officially Rings In the Summer Season


It’s a time-honored tradition just like Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow or the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. Every year, travelers anxiously await the official start of summer, signified by the first major weather-induced meltdown at New York area airports. Congratulations, everyone. Summer has arrived!

Those of you in Denver are undoubtedly saying, “what? Summer has been here for weeks.” And it’s true that Denver has been absolutely hammered by some wild weather including hail, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and clouds of pot smoke. While this has disrupted Denver travel, that airport and airspace is far more resilient than those found in the fragile Northeast US.

Unlike Denver, the Northeast has had it really good lately. There was virtually no snow in New York City this winter while the West Coast was absolutely hammered. And summer storms have largely stayed away up until this past weekend when all hell broke loose. As if that wasn’t enough, storms made Tuesday an absolute mess as well. But it wasn’t just the storms that messed everything up.

Yes, Mother Nature’s work whipping up thunderstorms that seemed to sit over key airspace absolutely caused really ugly delays and cancellations. But there’s another culprit here, and it’s this suspicious person:

Don’t know who that is? That’s because this person is the permanent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator. And that person does not exist. Instead, we have moved on to the second acting administrator after the previous one left for the private sector. The FAA is responsible for air traffic control, and they have by all accounts been doing a pretty poor job of keeping these jobs fully staffed, let alone with people who have experience. They already warned that they were severely understaffed around New York City and asked airlines to reduce flying this summer. The airlines did that, but when the weather gets bad? It’s still ugly.

United CEO Scott Kirby wrote a scathing note about the situation since United’s Newark hub felt much of the pain. In particular, he points to Saturday where the weather wasn’t bad (it hit on Sunday) but Newark capacity was already reduced. I’ll just give you a snippet:

The FAA reduced the arrival rates [at Newark on Saturday] by 40% and the departure rates by 75%. That is almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA. It led to massive delays, cancellations, diversions, as well as crews and aircraft out of position. And that put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening.

That’s quite a cheery picture Scott paints there. But just how bad was it? I’m so glad you asked. I took a look at Anuvu operational performance data to show just how bad it got. I’ll start with the percentage of departing flights airlines ended up canceling around New York City for all airlines.

% of Departing Flights Completed by Airport

Data via Anuvu

Look at JFK hanging in there. And indeed, the other stats show something similar. Here’s a look at arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule for all departures from these airports:

% of Departing Flights Completed Within 14 Minutes of Schedule by Airport

Data via Anuvu

That is… very bad. Newark is by far the worst. On the worst of these days, it’s due to where the storms are sitting and winds. On Tuesday, there was a wall of weather to the west of the city which meant flights could take off but they’d have nowhere to go. Instead there were lengthy ground stops and ground delay programs which snarled traffic.

But on Saturday? For airlines to have had to cancel more than 10 percent of departures and operate fewer than 40 percent of flights on time on what Untied says was a relatively good weather day, well, that is where United gets so angry about the staffing/seniority issue.

For its part, the FAA didn’t really address this. In a statement provided to Reuters, the FAA said “We will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem.” Uh, ok, great. But meanwhile, when weather hits, air traffic control is not performing at 100 percent and that makes it a lot tougher to get through a weather event.

While all airlines with a big presence in New York sturggled this week, none has struggled more than United. United’s operation appears to have buckled under the constant barrage of weather and ATC issues. Just take a look at each hub over the last few days.

% of United Departing Flights Completed Within 14 Minutes of Schedule by Hub

Data via Anuvu

As you can see, on Saturday the airline was able to really keep the terrible operation isolated to Newark, but by Sunday it had taken down Dulles and O’Hare. Monday saw continued deterioration and Tuesday with the fresh round of weather made things even worse with only Los Angeles seemingly able to run a functional operation.

As I write this, Wednesday appears to be stabilizing, at least. But when will the operation get back to normal? That remains to be seen.

One might just chalk this all up to the karma gods. After all, during United’s 4th quarter earnings call, Scott went on and on about how it avoided meltdowns because it had invested so heavily into running a different kind of operation with more buffer. United was different than other airlines… and maybe it is.

Maybe if another airline had the lion’s share of operations at Newark, it would have done far worse than United. But this week, United proved that no matter how well you prepare, anyone can have their operation torn to pieces. It just takes poorly-placed weather and an under-functioning air traffic control system. Next time, it’ll be someone else’s turn.

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23 comments on “The First New York Operational Mess Officially Rings In the Summer Season

  1. As one woman being interviewed on the local news said “I’ll never fly United ever again.” To that I say… you do you.

    1. I assume the local news cut out the rest of that quote, or the passenger chose not to say it aloud: “I’ll never fly United ever again… [long pause] … Unless 4 months from now I am looking at airline ticket prices and see that flying United will save me $20, in which case I will definitely choose United.” ;-)

  2. EWR has been a horrible airport, operationally speaking, for decades. I used to go out of my way to avoid it as far back as the late 80’s because flights were so often delayed. Back then, the terminals were nasty dumps too – though this issue has at least been rectified. UA actually does do a pretty good job in avoiding meltdowns such as this. Being based near ORD, I fly them a lot. One thing I notice is the sheer number of out and back flights based at ORD. They probably do the same at other hubs too. This design tends to isolate the issues if one hub goes down due to weather, etc.

    Unfortunately, last weekend featured widespread storms all over the NE corridor that were particularly bad over the NY metro. And, EWR went back to it’s old ways of horrible delays and mass cancellations. It eventually got so bad that some of the scheduling firewalls (such as the aforementioned “out and back flights”) that UA set up were breached and it all came tumbling down. UA got hit in it’s weak spot and that would be the dump that is EWR. It’s been a while, so perhaps they’d forgotten how bad it can get there, as they ramped up service and became increasingly reliant on their base there. But EWR had nightmare days back when it was a CO hub too. My only recommendation is to do as I do and just avoid connecting through EWR. Flying from ORD, this is actually pretty easy unless you literally need to be in northern NJ.

  3. Funny how DFW has been hit but has been running better then HOU or ORD for UA. AA ORD schedule which is almost as big (37% vs 39% of marketshare) isn’t showing as many cracks. AA’s new AI flight scheduling software might be working, one of the changes that AA took on AFTER Kirby left.

    1. From the outside, it’s hard to know for sure, but I will say that picking operations guy Robert Isom to run AA instead of Kirby is looking like a pretty good call. The improvement in AA’s operation has certainly been impressive under his leadership — and I assume he has a role in that.

      1. It’s definitely easier to run a smaller operation. Besides DFW, CLT, and AAustin, American has decreased flights and lost market share nearly everywhere else.

  4. While it is absolutely certain that the FAA has been very slow to recover from the pandemic, I’m not sure it is fair or accurate to hold the absent head of that organization responsible for what happened over the weekend. The FAA is government funded and is far less capable of a quick recovery from a major black swan event just as the pandemic than private sector companies.

    Specific to this past week, whether more severe storms set up over EWR vs. at JFK and LGA, there were extensive ATC delays at all three airports for days including ground stops that persisted for hours, leading to delays that stretched into hours even when ATC could move planes. And despite what some argue could be eliminated by better ATC technology, flight operations simply cannot occur when there are extensive thunderstorms in close proximity to airports. Ramp operations at all 3 airports were repeatedly suspended due to thunderstorms; flight operations were even less able to occur.

    The statistics that are not provided in this article are flight cancellations and that data has clearly shown that United has fared much, much worse than the rest of the industry. All week long, UAL’s mainline rates of cancellation far exceeded every other airlines and did not fall even yesterday when there were very few ATC delay hours in UA hubs.

    As much as Scott Kirby wants to blame the FAA, United lost operational control, exactly what he mocked Southwest for doing (and they did) in December. There are reports of UAL crews far from the NE and from any ATC delays that could not reach crew scheduling, did not have reroute info, and so took it upon themselves to go to hotels after they reached duty time limits, awakening the next morning without reroute directions. UAL cancelled 23% and delayed 44% of its mainline flights on Wednesday. No other carrier came anywhere near those levels of cancellations and only JBLU, which perpetually pushes its operation beyond what it can reliably deliver, did worse on on-time performance. American and Delta both ended up with 1-2% cancellations and 20% of flights delayed. Before the first flights left today, United had already cancelled 13% of its mainline flights and that number is growing. Every other airline started the day with single digit numbers of cancellations except for B6 which was still only at 1%.

    What United experienced this week is distinctly different than the rest of the industry and it will prove costly to United’s finances. Given that Scott Kirby’s plan is to aggressively grow esp. in markets which have shown an increase in operational instability for the industry, it is far less certain that UAL’s growth plans can be achieved.

  5. Kirby and the other aviation plutocrats took billons in taxpayer funds intended to keep employees on the job and instead used them to induce workers to retire early, thus driving share price. The FAA is experiencing the same staffing issues as retail, healthcare, the military, and pizza joints: competition for a tight labor pool. Oh, and newsflash: intense thunderstorms arise in the spring.

    1. Actually the FAA is nothing like those other industries. Most sectors laid off employees and that is the root of their staffing issues. Government did not.

      Specific to the FAA, it paused hiring and training of air traffic controllers during the pandemic, but the hiring has since resumed.

      So no, they aren’t experiencing the same staffing issues because they kept their staff instead having mass layoffs and buyouts like the private sector. Blaming the currently drastic levels of understaffing on a temporary hiring freeze is disingenuous bordering on incompetent.

      1. “Incompetent” is shooting from the hip, like your comment. Instead, you could have looked for support sources. The Federal government is indeed facing labor shortages similar to those of private industry:

        And I never called it a temporary hiring freeze — you did. It’s more accurately an extended labor shortage induced by a number of factors, including Covid.

        None of which bothers Kirby, of course, as he has access to private air:

  6. Here’s a dose of reality.

    The system is near capacity. It just is. And when we have issues arise that reduce even the capacity we do have, things fall apart.

    We need more planes, more pilots, and more controllers. We could use more runways. Until we get some of that these meltdowns are going to happen. We can do a better job trying to deal with them but they are still going to happen.

      1. Rail would not work that well here. Rail works is congested areas and along linear corridors. Like the Northeast, SoCal, or Seattle to Portland.

        We aren’t going to have rail for Austin to Atlanta or DFW to Denver or Houston to St. Louis. The distances are too great and the traffic too thin.

        Plus rail is EXPENSIVE to build. You literally need to grow around it instead.

        1. Take a look at a rail map of China sometime. Rail most certainly would work from Austin to Atlanta, etc. It’s just a serious lack of leadership on the issue of public transportation and Americans are married to their cars. If it hadn’t been for politicians kowtowing to GM and Ford in the early days of the automobile and destroying the train systems that existed in every city at that time, today we probably would have a rail system equivalent to China.

          1. It’s not a lack of leadership, it’s the economics. The US is far larger and less populated, and rail corridors only work economically in congested areas.

            Let’s use Austin to Atlanta. That is right at 900 miles. It’s the same distance is Guangzhou to Shanghai. A look at the rail schedule there shows that the shortest rail trip there is 7 hours and 51 minutes. Basically 8 hours, compared to 2 hours on a plane or 13 1/2 hours in a car. Why would you take an 8 hour train trip for that?

            And I kind of laugh at this criticism that “Americans are married to their cars”. We LIKE driving our cars and being mobile. You know where public transit works?

            1) Where it’s too big a pain to drive (NYC)
            2) Where it’s too far (Austin to Atlanta)
            3) Where people don’t have the money for a car

            We like driving, and we like the freedom of jumping in our own vehicle and going where we want to go when we want to get there. That isn’t because of politicians, it’s because cars are a better choice for most.

            1. Cars are a better choice for most because US cities are built around the airplane.

              If we had a functioning rail system, sure people would still fly NYC-SEA, but they wouldn’t fly NYC-DAY.

              The US acquiescence to the automobile industry has irreparably screwed the country.

        2. Rail won’t work everywhere but we should really beef it up along high population, linear corridors like you’ve mentioned. The east coast wouldn’t be as jammed up with flights as it is if the train options were better.

  7. It makes me laugh when “avgeeks”, almost none of which have any exposure to the industry closer than a credit card/status/seat 3B routinely use forums such as this (, etc) to crap on the airlines. It’s hilarious.

    1. For the record I’m an ExPlat on American and have been for 17 straight years. Including the pandemic.

  8. UA cancelled my DTW-EWR on Monday, then abandoned everyone at DTW trying to get ANYWHERE. I had a EWR-LHR flight on Tuesday that I would miss. Ended up forking out $600 for a one-way ticket DTW-PHL on Delta (closest airport I could get a flight to) and another $150 in rental car hire to get to EWR. UA were useless on Monday – the promise of 30K award miles is not much compensation. I get that weather happens – but they knew things were getting ugly on Sunday, and could have made decisions then, but instead they cancelled a 2pm flight at 1pm on Monday, and failed to provide support to get everyone else accommodated. No rental cars available at DTW either (we’d already formed out Planes, Trains & Automobiles groups whilst pointlessly waiting in line for non-existent support from UA). EWR sucks (and I never learn).

  9. And yet….

    I was stuck in this mess, supposed to fly WN LGA-MDW on Tuesday at 7:15 PM. WN canceled at 4:45 — and their next available seat to Chicago was Saturday – 4 days later. No surprise. Regular WN flyers know they suck at IRROPS, and probably always will.

    After booking and checking into a new hotel, I pounded on airline web sites and wound up paying UA ~$900 for a one-way EWR-ORD midday on Wednesday. (AA, by the way, was asking over $4,000 for JFK-ORD)

    I had sworn off UA in the early 1990s, when labor relations were sour and staff surly — and they had canceled my HOU-ORD return flight on three consecutive trips. Since then, I had only flown them twice: in 1993, to LHR when AA was on strike, and to YYZ in 2006 because I had points from LH travel.

    How badly could they screw up ORD-YYZ? That was the day their entire dispatch system crashed, while I was at the gate. As soon as the canceled notification went up, the gate agent slammed the podium shut, told me to go stand in the rebooking line — she was outta there — and not nicely. They then automatically rebooked me two days later, connecting at LGA.

    That eventually got fixed, but I approached EWR with some trepidation to say the least — not even knowing that UA and EWR had the worst of it last weekend.

    And yet —

    Yes, terminal C at EWR is a dump, combining the worst features of ORD and pre-rebuilding LGA. But baggage drop was quick, and so was precheck security.

    Yes, the ORD-EWR turn was late. Left Chicago late (don’t know why); further delayed because the gate was occupied by a flight to Cancun that had been waiting for a crew for four hours. Eventually, they found another gate and scraped up a minimal crew. With a completely full 737-900, and a 70 person + standby list, boarding was slow; baggage handling even slower, not helped by the large number of gate-checked bags.

    But in the end, it got me to ORD only 90 minutes late — and at least 30 minutes of that was ATC at ORD (landing to the east instead of the west, and an extremely roundabout taxi path from the most remote runway (9L) because of where Air Force One was parked.).

    And every UA employee I talked to was pleasant and cheerful.

    A sample size of one is, of course, statistically meaningless. And Scott Kirby’s hubris was appropriately punished by the furies.

    PS: on Tuesday, WN canceled at 4:45. By 6:45, I had (a) canceled my car to the airport (b) booked and checked into a new hotel (c) bought the UA ticket, (d) bought the last available orchestra ticket for “Some Like It Hot” and walked to the theatre for a 7:00 curtain. Good lemonade, that.

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