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Airlines tried shifting blame, but they’re the biggest cause of delays

After faulting air traffic controllers for delays and cancellations, airline industry leaders are now taking a more conciliatory tone

Passengers onboard an airplane traveling from Charlotte to Washington this month. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)
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Airline executives, under a barrage of criticism from the public, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have sought to shift blame for flight troubles this summer onto the nation’s air traffic control system. But federal data shows that airlines themselves are the biggest reason for delays in recent months and bear responsibility for an unusually high share of cancellations.

The numbers, reported by airlines and released this past week by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, also confirm the experiences of many passengers: 2022 has been a rough year for air travel. Federal transportation officials say 88,161 flights were canceled through May — the second-most in the first five months of a year since 1988, topped only by 2020 during the emergence of the pandemic.

The jump in flight delays and cancellations — stemming from surging demand in an industry that shed tens of thousands of employees during the pandemic — prompted unusual rounds of public finger-pointing beginning this spring. It came as the nation’s airports were recording their busiest days of the pandemic era, prompting unequipped airlines to boost worker pay incentives and pare back schedules.

The industry’s criticism of air traffic controllers sparked rebuttals from the Federal Aviation Administration and Buttigieg, reminding passengers of their rights to refunds when airlines cancel flights or subject passengers to extended delays.

While air traffic control officials acknowledge their own pandemic-era challenges, data suggests that those issues haven’t played a significant role in this year’s airline struggles.

According to the Transportation Department figures, air carriers were directly responsible for about 41 percent of delays through May, a figure on par with last year but higher than before the pandemic. Late-arriving aircraft — another problem mostly attributable to airlines — accounted for an additional 37 percent of delays.

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Problems with the nation’s airspace, such as congestion, bad weather or staffing at air traffic control facilities, accounted for 17 percent of delays — the lowest level since officials began tracking the data in 2004. Extreme weather is its own category and accounted for about 5 percent of delays.

As for cancellations, problems attributed to airlines were cited in 38 percent of cases, the highest rate since 2012. But the majority of cancellations involve circumstances beyond the carriers’ control. Weather was cited in 55 percent of cases. National airspace problems, such as those involving air traffic control, accounted for 7 percent of cancellations.

Buttigieg said there are signs that air travel is becoming more reliable, even as cancellation rates continue to hover above acceptable levels.

“What I’ve emphasized to the airlines is we want to support them when they’re doing the right thing. We’re also here to enforce the rules when they’re not,” he said recently. “Anytime there’s anything under FAA’s control, they will work on it, but I want to be very, very clear here: That is not explaining the majority of delays.”

Experts said the dispute between airlines and air traffic control probably reflects a desire by industry leaders to spread the blame after months of difficulties. Senior figures in the industry this past week signaled that they are ready to set aside the dispute, striking a more conciliatory tone.

In a Thursday earnings call, United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby said he had personally apologized to Buttigieg after an internal company memo appeared to fault air traffic controllers for many of the carrier’s tardy flights.

“I think the whole system is strained,” Kirby said. “There’s tight staffing everywhere, and that’s a part of it. It’s not unique to the FAA. It’s everything in the whole economy, and certainly a big chunk of things that touch on aviation are tight.”

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at the trade group Airlines for America, added: “We really are not interested in engaging in a finger-pointing exercise. We are focused on collaboration and trying to make sure that we’re all focused on the things that are going to improve the operational reliability.”

There are signs the labor issues that have plagued the industry are improving. Southwest Airlines employs more people than it did before the pandemic. Delta Air Lines officials said this month that the company has hired 18,000 people since 2021 and its workforce is 95 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

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Airlines and the FAA routinely communicate to manage the nation’s skies. Air traffic controllers and airline managers meet virtually each afternoon to plan the next day’s flights, with other meetings at least every two hours throughout the day to share updates.

Former FAA administrator Michael Huerta said previous incidents involving tension between the agency and airlines were resolved behind the scenes. In public, both have typically tried to show unity, he said.

“There always is a tension between what the system can handle comfortably and what the carriers might want to provide,” said Huerta, who led the FAA during the Obama administration.

The fact that tensions are being aired publicly “reflects a sense of frustration on everyone’s part,” he said.

Disputes began building in April, when airline leaders sought a meeting with FAA officials to address air traffic control issues in Florida. Demand for travel to the state is booming, with several airports seeing more flights than before the pandemic. Space launches have also emerged as a source of congestion.

Checking a bag is a total nightmare this summer

The meeting involved a dozen airlines, private aircraft operators and FAA officials over two days in early May. The FAA pledged to add workers to its busy Jacksonville air traffic control facility, which agency figures show had low staffing levels.

In a late June letter to Buttigieg, Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, said one of its members reported that air traffic control issues were a factor in one-third of the carrier’s recent cancellations. While weather also was a factor, Calio wrote that air traffic control “staffing issues have led to traffic restrictions under ‘blue sky’ conditions.”

In a memo to employees after the July 4 holiday weekend, United executive Jon Roitman estimated that more than half the carrier’s delay minutes and three-quarters of its cancellations were because of “FAA traffic management initiatives,” which had been particularly acute in Newark and Florida. And while he acknowledged that many of those delays stemmed from weather, “air traffic volume and staffing are also contributing.”

“The reality is that there are just more flights scheduled industry-wide than the ATC staffing system can handle (particularly in NY and FL),” the memo said. “Until that is resolved, we expect the U.S. aviation system will remain challenged this summer and beyond.”

Airlines trimmed summer schedules, aiming to avoid high-profile meltdowns

The memo drew a sharp response from FAA officials.

“It is unfortunate to see United Airlines conflate weather-related Air Traffic Control measures with ATC staffing issues, which could deceptively imply that a majority of those situations are the result of FAA staffing,” the agency said in a statement, adding that while there are overlapping factors that affect the nation’s air system, “the majority of delays and cancellations are not because of staffing at FAA.”

The FAA said there were no air traffic control staffing issues on July 3 and 4, yet airlines canceled more than 1,110 flights, a quarter of which were operated by United.

Jeff Guzzetti, a former official at the Transportation Department’s inspector general office, examined flight delays and offered recommendations on reducing their effects on customers in a 2013 report. He said the causes of delays are complex, adding that it can be “tough to nail down what each of those contributing factors are.”

Even so, he laid blame for the bulk of recent cancellations and delays on airline operations as the nation has begun emerging from the pandemic — a time when demand for travel has skyrocketed.

Michael J. McCormick, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a former FAA official, said the rise in delays and cancellations reflects a travel demand beyond what the industry was prepared to handle.

“The airlines don’t want to be the one organization holding the blame for what’s going on in the system and are saying ‘the FAA, you share blame in this,’ ” he said. Air traffic control issues are “definitely a part of it, but I would not characterize them as the major one.”

While airlines shed workers as people stopped flying in 2020, the pandemic’s effects on the FAA’s workforce were less severe. FAA documents show it lost about 500 air traffic controllers between September 2019 and September 2021. That has left some major facilities with staffing toward the low end of what the agency estimates is required, according to a recent FAA staffing study. The union that represents maintenance technicians also says staffing numbers have fallen in recent years.

The FAA hired 509 controllers last year but is seeking to add 1,020 more this budget year to help rebuild its staff, a process that involves years of training.

“There are certain geographies, notably Florida, where the impact of covid on our training pipeline really did affect the air traffic organization,” Buttigieg said.

Airline executives have also pointed to airspace around Newark Liberty International Airport as being especially troubled. United has cut flights there to get a better handle on its operations — a process in which Kirby said federal officials have been a reliable partner.