Gridlock In The Skies: Inside New York’s Air Traffic Control Crisis Delaying Flights And Spiking Fares

The federal government keeps kicking the air traffic control crisis in New York down the road. About three quarters of all airspace delays track to the New York metro area, according to the FAA. And this has knock-on effects as delays of planes flying out of New York wind up causing downline delays elsewhere in the country.

So far all the government has been able to do is encourage airlines to fly less, rather than fixing the problem.

  • The government hands out the right to takeoff and land at congested airports (“slots”) to incumbent airlines. These are treated as property rights (given free, so subsidies) that block competitors from entering the market.

  • Since there’s a severe shortfall in air traffic controllers in the New York area, the government has waived the normal requirement that airlines use their slots or lose them. As a result, airlines have flown less out of New York (which means higher airfares).

During the United Airlines fourth quarter earnings call, airline President Brett Hart talked about the FAA ‘slot waiver’ that’s in place for New York, saying he expects it to continue in force all year (it currently extends only through October 27th). Less flying in the area has meant less air traffic congestion and better reliability.

One of the largest challenges united and all airlines flying to and from New York have historically faced more flights than air traffic’s — than the air traffic system can handle is now being addressed, thanks to proactive intervention by the FAA. Newark, the United’s largest hub, has been operating with the best reliability on record since the FAA mandated that flight activity be consistent with the airspace and runway limitations of no more 77 operations per hour this fall. For United, that meant we reduced flight activity from Newark by about 10%. Expect to continue with those cuts for the remainder of 2024.

The issue here is that the FAA hasn’t properly staffed air traffic control and that’s limited how much flying is reliably possible. And they keep not properly staffing air traffic control so the government keeps encouraging airlines to limit their flying.

It’s ironic that the government fought the American Airlines-JetBlue partnership in New York as anti-competitive when the limit on airline competition is primarily coming from the federal government (slots, air traffic control) and this isn’t a new issue in the current administration.

Transportation policy expert Bob Poole writes about why the FAA has had such a hard time solving the air traffic control staffing crisis in New York: politics.

Now, I believe they need greater capacity for onboarding new controllers, and they need better pay differentials for the New York market, but he points out that the FAA has made progress throughout the rest of the country but hasn’t even really made progress in New York and that the FAA has had plans to address the problem that have been thwarted.

Poole reports,

  • The FAA worked to redesign airspace in 12 areas of the country, including New York-Philadelphia, but dropped New York from the program in 2013 without explanation.

  • The FAA plan had been to move Newark approach-control from New York TRACON on Long Island To Philadelphia. New York TRACON has been just 54% staffed. Senator Chuck Schumer killed it. Ostensibly the concern was jobs in New York, however

    [R]elieving N90 of the Newark portion of its workload would provide a far-better match between N90 controllers and flight activity. Making this change need not require any N90 controllers to move. It would likely require increasing the controller staff at PHL, whose TRACON is at the airport, co-located with the airport’s control tower.

According to a former member of the NextGen Advisory Committee at the FAA this move hasn’t happened, and may not happen, “due to the position of Sen. Schumer and controllers union NATCA” and that at most some Long Island controllers would see “a temporary assignment [to Philadelphia] to make the change responsibly, not a relocation.”

Apparently a culture issue, not just pay and available controller training, has hampered ramp up of staffing at New York TRACON where “the union senior controllers are reluctant to certify new controllers for that particular facility.”

There are a lot of problems in the federal government’s air traffic organization, and it isn’t just funding. They’ve done a poor job of managing technology upgrades (they haven’t fully retired paper flight strips!) and have fallen behind much of the world.

Politics shouldn’t ever stand in the way of fixing our national transportation system, limiting competition, and blocking air access to the financial capital of the world.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Obama caused this by trying to make the atc system “diverse”. About 10 years ago he scrubbed the cti program which allowed college students to be trained at the university level and then get a job offer from the faa. But there were too many whites and the scrapped it.

    Again DEI = Death and failure.

  2. @AndyS – I have written about the issue but it doesn’t explain what’s going in with New York TRACON

    The FAA launched the Collegiate Training Initiative in 1997, working with colleges and universities to offer air traffic control degrees, and making their graduates the primary source for hiring controllers. This trumped the previous requirement of a high school degree and three years of (unrelated) work experience.

    In 2005 the FAA Inspector General recommended adding coursework to these schools to reduce training time at the FAA’s academy. Since the FAA didn’t do this, Congress directed a study of the move in agency’s 2012 reauthorization.

    Instead the FAA started an Air Traffic Controller Recruitment Campaign which bypassed graduates. A decision made by the FAA, and not by the Air Traffic Organization, meant that both high school graduates and those with air traffic control degrees had to apply through the same program and pass both the standard aptitude test for controllers and a biographical test. This had the effect of bypassing hundreds of controller graduates.

    Here’s the thing,
    1/ FAA has been filling its classes, so what changed was who not how many
    2/ There’s no indication that unqualified people were getting onboarded
    3/ FAA is successfully hiring elsewhere

    Now, I believe they should expand their classes and train more controllers than they do. But that may not solve NY TRACON either. They need better differential pay for NY, better controller transfer policies, and it would appear they need to solve the culture issue where this one group won’t accept new controllers.

  3. Biden admin proposes requiring airlines to compensate travelers for cancellations and delays. Will Biden require the FAA to compensate travelers for cancellations and delays?

  4. @Andy S, that is BS. This issue has been going on well before the Obama Administration. It is mostly because of a sentence in the article that states “the union senior controllers are reluctant to certify new controllers for that particular facility.” That is 100% true and it has been going on for decades.

    The reason being that with fewer certified controllers, the more overtime is paid out due to short staffing. If they certified them, it would cut back on the overtime and they would bring home less pay. This is definitely not a new problem.

    Also, upon graduation from the ATC Academy, at least one student from every enroute class must go to either Oakland or New York ARTCC. That procedure is in place to try and alleviate the short staffing at those facilities.

  5. @AndyS
    You are an idiot. Reagan destroyed the ATC system and it has never recovered.

    When 10,000+ controllers were fired by Ronny Rayguns, the FAA had to rehire that many more. They hired those replacements in a short period of time and you know what happens then? They ALL retired at about the same time. When they all retired at the same time, the FAA was again forced to hire in a large batch. This is the legacy of one of the worst administrations ever.

  6. @AndyS @Randy
    You are both totally wrong. Reagan destroyed the ATC system and it has never recovered. When 10,000+ controllers were fired by Ronny Rayguns, the FAA had to rehire that many more. They hired those replacements in a short period of time and you know what happens then? They ALL retired at about the same time. When they all retired at the same time, the FAA was again forced to hire in a large batch. This is the legacy of one of the worst administrations ever.

    The fact is, the FAA has always been widely diverse in it hiring. Nothing has changed, for better or for worse.

  7. If you look at the data cti graduates had a higher success rate I certification. They still had to do the faa academy training but entered it with the skills already in place to succeed.

    The dei push for controllers has taken people off the street that needed extra training and are now taking longer to get certified.

    The faa is lowering standards. Just recently they scrubbed the test that was taken by all perspective applicants because it was deemed racist.

  8. NATCA is the problem at N90. Run it like a business not a welfare state. And don’t give me that b.s. about safety leading your collaborative process. The U.S. has always maintained the safest air traffic system in the world by the numbers. Time to get rid of the union roadblock and innovate for God’s sake. AI can’t come soon enough to the FAA.

  9. It is very easy for the airlines to place the blame on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), even though airline scheduling is a significant and historical part of the problem. In fact, the system is working as it is designed, by limiting the number of airborne aircraft allowed into the National Airspace System (NAS).

    However the airlines are correct in stating, air-traffic control staffing shortages predate the FAA’s current leadership. Though I am not a fan of the current administration, I challenge anyone to find a time in modern history when major Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Air Traffic Control facilities were fully or even close to being fully staffed. A journeyman Controller at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) in the early to mid 1970s, I don’t recall the journeyman level staffing exceeding 50% -60% of what was authorized.

    The primary problem is that the FAA is a government agency and operates at the whim of politicians. As a result, hiring has always been sporadic, even though since 1972 (Public Law 92-297) the FAA knows definitively what impact retirement will have on the workforce since a Controller is required to retire at age 56, and voluntarily retire at age 50 with 25 years as a Controller, but fail to hire replacements accordingly.

    To further exacerbate the situation, in December 2013, the FAA dropped the preference for College Training Initiative (CTI) graduates and instead relied only on a biographical questionnaire to fill controller positions. Those colleges believe the FAA changes were made based on an agency diversity study that examined the race and gender of CTI graduates. Established by the FAA in1982, the CTI was a very successful college training program eventually enlisting 28 colleges to provide initial air traffic control training. Prior to December 2013, many colleges, such as the Community College of Beaver County (Pennsylvania), maintained a minimum of a 6 month long waiting list to enter the program. After the December 2013 change a number of these schools discontinued the ATC curriculum due to a lack of students. In fiscal year 2020, the Air Traffic The drive for the initiative to improve racial diversity has made a mockery of the screening process. Controller Hiring Reform Act was enacted in an attempt to rectify the problems incurred as a result of the December 2013 decision. The recent law now gives preference to those who have graduated with a four-year degree from a CTI school or have parallel military ATC experience. However it will take years to overcome the 2013 fiasco; i.e. hiring individuals who might not have had the ability and motivation to do the job. In the meantime “the chickens are coming home to roost”, in the form of increased incidents. Prior to 1973, individuals who had been Controllers in the military were a primary source of hirees for the FAA. Since the end of the Vietnam War, and the end of the “Draft”, the number of valued former military hires is no longer a significant contribution to FAA staffing.

    Once again consider the hiring implications of PL92-297; i.e. applicants must be hired before their 31st birthday. Recent surveys have indicated, the generation of individuals eligible to be hired under the law have indicated an aversion to a high stress, demanding work environment. At least for now, Air Traffic Control is not a stay at home profession, but rather a career requiring motivation and an aptitude not necessarily achieved by acquiring a traditional form of “higher education”.

    Thanks for listening. There is plenty of material available regarding this issue, should you choose to do additional research. Don’t take my word for it ….

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