WARRENTON, VA – During a morning meeting in early May, staff at the Federal Air Traffic Command center cleared some of the day’s snags: storms off the Florida coast and in Texas, an exercise for military aircraft, and a report of a strike bird at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The center, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., is responsible for coordinating the complex network of more than 40,000 flights a day over the United States. Soon after 7 a.m. ET, there were already 3,500 flights. During peak travel periods, this number can rise to more than 5,000 flights at any one time.
With air travel rebounding to levels close to the Covid-19 pandemic, even as airlines continue to be understaffed, the agency and airlines are trying to control the growing rate of delays and cancellations that can destroy vacations and cost airlines tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
The problems come during the high-demand spring and summer travel season, which also coincides with some of the most disruptive weather for airlines – thunderstorms.
Staff are monitoring potential problems in the country’s airspace “every day, every hour,” said Lakesha Price, director of air traffic at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center.
The center operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center.
Erin Black | CNBC
From the start of the year through June 13, airlines canceled 3% of about 4 million US commercial flights for that period, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. Another 20% are late, with passengers waiting an average of 48 minutes.
During 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 is director of air traffic at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center
Erin Black | CNBC
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) typically manages air traffic flow in part by keeping incoming traffic at origin airports or slowing down arrivals.
Flight cancellations and delays last year and 2022 have alarmed some lawmakers.
There are no easy solutions
With no quick fix in sight, the FAA and airlines are scrambling to find other solutions. One option was to allow airlines to fly at lower altitudes to avoid weather challenges, even though this approach burns more fuel.
Airlines come up with their own solutions, too. In April, American Airlines launched a program called HEAT that analyzes traffic and potential disruptions, allowing it to determine which flights should be delayed as soon as possible to avoid a series of cancellations.
“We can start hours earlier, and in some cases five or six hours before what we think is going to be the storm,” said David Seymour, chief operating officer of American Airlines.
“We have to be able to be very smart and adaptive to the scenario as it happens,” he added.
The pandemic has slowed air traffic controller training, but the FAA hired more than 500 new controllers last year to raise its workforce to about 14,000. The agency wants to hire more than 4,800 more over the next five years. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it is in the middle of a hiring campaign called “Be ATC” and said it will work with social media influencers and hold Instagram Live events around the job.
The job is not for everyone. Applicants cannot be over 30 years old and must retire when they reach 56 years of age. US pilots are forced to retire at age 65 and airlines are currently facing a wave of retirements, some of which have been accelerated in the pandemic when airlines urged them to leave early to cut their costs. This year, lawmakers were considering a bill that would raise the pilot retirement age by at least two years.
Storms in Texas
Back in the command post, the cavernous room where air traffic specialists, airlines, members of the private aviation industry, and meteorologists work, features large screens showing air traffic and elevated weather along the main wall. It shows a comprehensive view of the country’s air traffic, which has been rebounding so quickly that prices have surpassed 2019 levels.
“The problem is Texas now,” John Lucia, the center’s National Traffic Administration official, said during one of the morning’s meetings. He was referring to a group of thunderstorms that were threatening to delay dozens of flights at East Texas airports.
He indicated that the weather will hit the Dallas-Forth Worth area at about ten in the morning
“So it gives us a few hours to worry about that,” said Lucia, a FAA veteran of more than three decades.
Last year, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport became the second busiest airport in the world thanks to the US travel boom and the dearth of international flights. The airport is the main hub for American Airlines. Also nearby is Dallas Love Field, the main base for Southwest Airlines.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, inclement weather causes an average of 70% of US flight delays annually. But there are other reasons for the delay as well.
“We’ve seen people drawing lines on the runway,” said Price, the center’s director of air traffic. “We have wildlife on the runways. You have to be prepared for everything.”
It was some of the busiest airspace in Florida. The state has long been a major tourist destination, but it has become more than a hotspot during the pandemic for travelers looking for an outdoor getaway. Some airports like Tampa and Miami are seeing more airline capacity numbers than they were before Covid-19 hit.
At the same time, the state is prone to thunderstorms that can support air traffic for hours. Airlines and the FAA vied over who was at fault, with airlines at times blaming air traffic control, including the ATC crew shortage, for delays that cost them every minute.
One solution offered by airlines is to reduce the number of their flights despite the increasing demand. JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines and, most recently, Delta Air Lines, have scaled back their schedules again as they grapple with staff shortages and routine challenges like the weather, to give themselves more support when things go wrong.
In May, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) organized a two-day meeting with airlines in Florida about some of the recent delays. Then, the FAA said it would increase staffing at the Jacksonville Traffic Control Center, which oversees air traffic in five states — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina — and tends to deal with the challenges of bad weather. Space launches and military exercises.
The FAA has stopped limiting flights serving Florida, but said it will help airlines find alternative routes and altitudes.
For example, the agency is also directing more traffic over the Gulf of Mexico, Price said.
Thunderstorms in the spring and summer are among the toughest challenges because they can be unpredictable.
American Seymour said the airline can still improve, “We continue to look for better ways to handle these situations.”