WARRENTON, Va. – During a morning meeting in early May, Federal Air Traffic Command Center personnel discuss some of the day’s obstacles: storms off the coast of Florida and Texas, a training exercise aviation and a report of a bird strike at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The center, about an hour’s drive from Washington, DC, is responsible for coordinating the complex network of more than 40,000 daily flights over the United States. Shortly after 7 a.m. ET, there were already 3,500 flights in the air. During peak periods, this figure can climb to over 5,000 flights at a time.
As air travel rebounds to near pre-Covid pandemic levels, even as airlines remain understaffed, the agency and carriers are trying to control the growing rate of delays and cancellations that can ruining vacations and costing airlines tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
The problems arise during the high-demand spring and summer travel season, which also coincides with some of the most disruptive weather conditions for airlines – thunderstorms.
LaKisha Price, air traffic manager at the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system command center, said staff monitor potential problems in the nation’s airspace “every day, every hour.”
The center is busy 24/7.
FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center.
Erin Black | CNBC
From the start of the year to June 13, airlines canceled 3% of the roughly 4 million U.S. commercial flights for that period, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. Another 20% were delayed, with passengers waiting an average of 48 minutes.
In the same period in 2019 before the pandemic, 2% of flights were canceled and 17% delayed, with a similar average wait time, according to FlightAware.
LaKisha Price Air Traffic Manager at the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center
Erin Black | CNBC
Typically, the FAA manages the flow of air traffic in part by withholding incoming traffic at originating airports or slowing arrivals.
Flight cancellations and delays last year and in 2022 have raised concerns among some lawmakers.
No easy solution
With no silver bullet in sight, the FAA and airlines are scrambling to find other solutions. One option has been to allow airlines to fly at lower altitudes to avoid weather problems, even if the approach consumes more fuel.
Airlines also offer their own solutions. In April, American Airlines launched a program called HEAT that analyzes traffic and potential disruptions, helping it identify flights to delay as soon as possible to avoid a cascade of cancellations.
“We can start hours in advance, in some cases five, six hours before what we think the storm is going to be,” said David Seymour, chief operating officer of American Airlines.
“We have to be able to be very nimble and adapt to the scenario as it unfolds,” he added.
The pandemic has slowed training for air traffic controllers, but the FAA hired more than 500 new controllers last year to bring its workforce to about 14,000. The agency wants to hire more than 4,800 more over the next five years . The FAA said it was in the midst of a hiring drive called “Be ATC” and said it would work with social media influencers and host Instagram Live events on the job.
The job is not for everyone. Applicants cannot be older than 30 and must retire at age 56. In the United States, pilots are forced to retire at 65 and airlines are currently facing a wave of retirements, some of which were accelerated during the pandemic when carriers urged them to leave. early to reduce their costs. Lawmakers this year considered a bill that would raise the retirement age for pilots by at least two years.
Storms in Texas
Back at the command center, the cavernous room where air traffic specialists, members of the airline and private aviation industry, and meteorologists work features large screens showing air traffic and high weather along the wall major. It shows an overview of the country’s air traffic, which has rebounded so quickly that fares are over 2019 levels.
“The problem is Texas right now,” John Lucia, the center’s national traffic management manager, said during one of the morning meetings. He pointed to a cluster of thunderstorms threatening to delay dozens of flights at airports in east Texas.
He noted the weather was expected to hit the Dallas-Forth Worth area around 10 a.m.
“So that gives us a few hours to worry about it,” said Lucia, an FAA veteran of more than three decades.
Last year, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport became the second busiest in the world thanks to the boom in travel to the United States and the dearth of international travel. The airport is the home hub of American Airlines. Also nearby is Dallas Love Field, home base for Southwest Airlines.
According to the FAA, inclement weather causes 70% of flight delays in the United States in an average year. But there are also other reasons for the delay.
“We saw people hanging out on the runway,” said Price, the center’s air traffic manager. “We had wild animals on the slopes. You have to be ready for anything.”
Congestion in Florida
Some of the most congested airspaces are in Florida. The state has long been a top tourist destination, but has become even more of a hotspot during the pandemic for travelers seeking outdoor getaways. Some airports like Tampa and Miami are seeing increased air capacity compared to before the Covid-19 hit.
At the same time, the state is prone to thunderstorms which can block air traffic for hours. Airlines and the FAA have argued over who is at fault, with carriers sometimes blaming air traffic control, including lack of ATC personnel, for delays that cost them by the minute.
One airline solution has been to scale back flights despite growing demand. JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines and, more recently, Delta Air Lines, have cut their schedules as they grapple with staff shortages and routine challenges like weather, to give themselves more backup in case of problem.
In May, the FAA hosted a two-day meeting with airlines in Florida about some of the recent delays. Subsequently, the FAA said it would increase staff at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, which oversees air traffic in five states – Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and North and South Carolina – and tends to face the challenges of bad weather. , space launches and military training exercises.
The FAA stopped short of capping flights serving Florida, but said it would help airlines offer alternative routes and altitudes.
For example, the agency is also routing more traffic over the Gulf of Mexico, Price said.
Spring and summer thunderstorms are some of the toughest challenges because they can be so unpredictable.
American’s Seymour said the airline could still improve: “We continue to look for better ways to handle these situations.”