The FAA Goes After The Points Guy: Who Is At Fault For Airline Delays?

The FAA is calling out Brian Kelly (‘The Points Guy’) who sold his eponymous website years ago, and no longer manages it, but still represents them in media. He blamed summer 2023 flight delays on FAA staffing, but the FAA points out that weather is a bigger cause of delays.

The FAA also calls out volume of flights and runway capacity as bigger issues with delays than staffing, though this is misleading.

Brian is wrong to suggest FAA staffing is the primary cause of flight delays, but he isn’t wrong to call out FAA staffing (and the FAA more broadly) as a major cause of delays.

The FAA bears a good deal of responsibility for controllable delays, famously in the event of meltdown of FAA systems but also due to lack of staffing in control towers. New York TRACON has been staffed only at around 60%, and as a result the government literally asked airlines to reduce their schedules – to proactively cancel flights they were going to operate.

But the FAA also bears some responsibility even for weather delays. The FAA doesn’t control the weather! But bad weather slows down airspace capacity, which is maxed out not only because of a growth in flying but because for decades the FAA has failed to keep pace with technology that would improve capacity. Congress has failed to make investments, but FAA leadership has also failed to successfully implement the large scale technology they have been spending on. They’re only just eliminating paper flight strips, and walking away from remote towers.

Better management at the FAA would improve operations significantly, even in some forms of weather. That doesn’t excuse airlines, whose own staffing issues led to meltdowns in 2021 and 2022 – as airlines took government bailout cash meant to keep employees connected and carriers ready to fly when passengers returned, but used some of that cash to pay employees to leave early. They lacked the staffing to operate the schedules they were selling. But that issue is largely in the past, while FAA staffing issues remain.

Flight ‘volume’ is related to both staffing and to air system capacity that hasn’t expanded – a failure at the FAA, since in the U.S. the federal government is both regulator of air traffic control as well as service provider. This is not a world best practice – you don’t want your agency providing air traffic control service regulating itself, and these two duties should be separated.

The FAA also called out runways but in the U.S. airports are owned by government, and the constraint on building is a government one – the U.S. has become very bad at doing large scale infrastructure projects. There are just too many veto points along the way, most of them created by the well-meaning National Environmental Policy Act.

Environmental review created too much ‘citizen participation’. Large-scale projects drag on for years and cost far more than their counterparts in Europe. Federal agencies signing off on projects add too many costs, too. You have Environmental Impact Statements, Public Review and Comment Periods (followed by supplemental Environmental Impact Statements), and then Legal Challenges. An insufficient National Environmental Policy Act analysis alone is reason for courts to start the process over. And multiple agencies must coordinate and work through disagreements and communication issues.

Here the FAA waves its hands at airspace capacity and at infrastructure projects which in significant part it funds to suggest ‘it’s the airline’s fault, not the government’s’ when it’s both. And the Department of Transportation is going after airlines to provide consumer compensation for delays, while failing to take responsibility for the delays it and its agencies cause.

Airlines for their part try to foist the cost of improving air traffic control on taxpayers rather than paying for it directly as users of the system so their hands are hardly clean here! There’s plenty of claim to go around, and Brian’s answer might have been more nuanced (in admittedly a ‘quick answer’ format), but FAA certainly protests a bit too much.

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. Based on the most recent DOT data, the FAA is right. Flights are more on-time than they were last year while the number of flights is up.
    And an overlay of ATC delays compared to thunderstorms shows that the FAA is also right that the greatest number of delays are attributable to weather.
    According to data which AIRLINES file with the DOT, the two largest causes for airline delays are late arriving aircraft followed by air carrier delays. The THIRD highest reason is the national aviation system.
    You need to get up to date with the data, Gary. You probably need to read it BEFORE you spout your opinions.

  2. FWIW, an attempt to correct someone’s assertion doesn’t qualify as “going after” that person. The headline led me to think that the FAA was calling for some sort of action to be brought against Kelly

  3. FAA: “Wow! The sky is so high, and the aircraft so numerous, we really are putting out a good effort! But first, let me check my days-countdown-to-retirement-pension website.

  4. So this can be narrowed down to one sentence. “The FAA is experiencing difficulties due to staffing and a compounding element of weather delays.”

    Thank me later…

  5. @Tim Dunn – Nothing in your comment disagrees with a single thing that I wrote. Everything in the FAA tweet is literally correct – but misleading to suggest that they do not bear some responsibility for the degree of slowdown in bad weather, and misleading to suggest that they do not some responsibility for the other causes of delay which attribute greater significance than staffing.

  6. PG is an agenda, credit card, politically driver person/company. Good. Hope they continue to go after him. He’s a dullard.

  7. Gary,
    you could have simply said that FAA delays are NOT the largest reason for airline delays – airlines themselves are the largest reason and the airlines themselves say that.

    That is the reason why there is a range of 15 percentage points between Delta, at the top of the list, and Frontier at the point of the list with the ultra low cost carriers and JetBlue all holding at the bottom of on-time for the industry.

    As long as airlines use ATC services, ATC will be a reason.

    If you think that the FAA is bad and responsible for airline delays, you really should take a look at Canada and Europe where they have those non-governmental ATC systems that you so push.

    Their on-time performance is FAR, FAR worse than in the US…. clearly because of the ATC systems, right?

  8. My experience with canceled flights is that at least some of the time the airlines lie about cancellations being weather related, at least United did this and it was demonstratable false by weather reports and other airlines not having canceled flights during the same time. To determine if actual weather cancellations are the greatest factor, an independent analysis has to be done and not airline self reporting. Say the weather is bad and an airplane has a mechanical problem, maybe the airline would cancel the flight on weather without fixing the problem over two hours and then determining if the weather is ok to fly. Since there is not a good feedback mechanism protecting customers, airlines do what helps their bottom line the most. I am not a fan of the FAA since they almost flew an airplane of an airline I fly with into Mt. Wilson near LAX.

  9. Gary,
    Did listen to what Brian said, read the tweet and do a bit of research before writing this article?

    “The FAA goes after the Points Guy”?: This is completely misleading and clickbait, the FAA responded to Brian channel, but they aren’t going after him!

    “Brian is wrong to suggest FAA staffing is the primary cause of flight delay”: He never said that the FAA is the primary cause of delays, what he said is “Staffing across airports and at air traffic control towers”. This to me implies a combination of Airline Staff and FAA issues in general.

    “The FAA also called out runways”: The FAA mentions runways on their site, but it’s less than 10% and not the major issue. Airport infrastructure is an issue, but so are some of our roadways and just like roadways, runways do get closed for any number of reasons. I get you wouldn’t know this since you don’t sit up front like some of do.

    “ Airspace capacity”, the FAA has issues, don’t get me wrong, but they have rolled out NEXTGEN at a number of airports and keep getting sued. So to imply they haven’t done anything is wrong.

    It would be nice if we could read an article on here we’re someone’s words were quoted and not made up!!

  10. I wish we could go back 10 years.. go to this site and just read about points and airline promos. Instead it’s constant stupidity.

  11. Anyone who thinks the world will come back to normal in our lifetimes after the virus hysteria is naive. “Everybody” is understaffed, “nobody” wants to work. The supply chain is “broken”, nobody can get items that they need. Even if there were plenty of ‘supplies’, there are no workers to get them to market. The government gave out billions of dollars to American citizens so they don’t HAVE to go back to work. What did everyone think would happen when they shut down the world? It was an extremely successful power play by the bureaucrats and politicians. Most of our tax money is wasted on things that have little bearing on our quality of life. And there’s not one damn thing we citizens can do about it.
    Lots of it goes to other countries, hoping that they will “like us”. In northern California you can hardly drive on the roads any more, they’re falling apart and nobody fixes them. Nobody in government cares about American people, but we’re the ones bearing the brunt of the insane shutdown … for a virus. Like nobody had encountered a virus before in the history of the world. The politicians decided that they should run an experiment to control an entire population. They did, they controlled us, and now our world is falling apart piece by piece.

  12. This admin excels at shedding blame for their own failures. I’m just surprised that they didn’t blame flight delays on white supremacists…or climate change…their usual two predictable boogiemans.

  13. “Answer all of your travel questions”? That would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. TPG is an odoriferous piece of excrement and a miserable huckster without redeeming qualities. I’m frankly stunned that the FAA is lowering themselves to responding to Kelly’s taunts.

  14. When I was in Traffic Management in the FAA, we could not use “Staffing” as a reason for delays, even if it was the reason. Obviously that has changed in the last ten years. Also, some of the staffing issues are for monetary reasons, i.e. if no developmental’s get certified, then the current certified controllers continue to earn 20 -25 hours of overtime per week. And, at time and a half when you are earning $80-$90 per hour, that is a good chunk of change. I know of this happening at more than one facility. They train them, but never certify them or stretch it out for a much longer time than it should be. Also, this has been going on for 20+ years and hasn’t stopped.

  15. The FAA deserves its share of blame for plenty of things, but it gets a bad rap for others, too.

    As 818PilotGuy points out, simply modifying flight paths in and out of airports is fraught with political peril. Just changing them gets people complaining, despite the fact that airplanes are quieter than ever. So back to the old flight paths they go. (A part of NextGen is limiting the number of “level offs” in a flight’s descent.)

    Second, we have a chicken-and-egg problem with upgrading aircraft technology… compounded by the fact that we can keep really old airplanes flying for a really long time. The useful life of an airframe can be upwards of 30 years, and many of those aircraft don’t have the tech needed to do some of these more advanced things. So whatever we do has to support both old school without the gadgets and new school with the gadgets. The airlines don’t want to equip if they don’t have to (although economic slowdowns forcing them to ground their older fleets actually helps) but rich people flying old business jets really don’t want to pay for something they don’t have to (it’s how one gets rich in the first place) and when that happens, they call their congress people and complain (they still rich, remember).

    The FAA also gets hamstrung by congress… they don’t get multi year budgets that they really need to actually develop more sophisticated stuff.

    Two solid arguments for spinning off the ATO: 1) Fox shouldn’t guard the hen house (safety needs to be separated from operations) and 2) More sustainable/plannable funding for long term modernization projects.

  16. @Randy

    Yeah… the FAA has been “downplaying” (ahem) staffing issues for *years*. I went through a college training program back in 2005, and back then, the FAA swore six ways from Sunday that there were no staffing issues.

    Problem is, anybody with half a brain can do decent forecasting of staffing needs, given mandatory age retirements, and… Reagan hiring a bunch of air traffic controllers all at once because you know. COVID just made things worse, jamming up the training pipeline.

  17. @818Pilotguy – “He never said that the FAA is the primary cause of delays,” False. He was asked “why are so many flights being cancelled lately?” and his answer, “This is in large part due to staffing” and “Staffing across airports and at air traffic control towers” and note that this doesn’t refer to aircraft staffing (pilots and flight attendants) so for your interpretation to make any sense that the issue is equal parts FAA *and airlines* you’d have to believe airline delays are because of… lack of check-in and gate agents? Yeah, ok.

    “The FAA mentions runways on their site, but it’s less than 10% and not the major issue.” FAA lists runways on their site as being more significant than staffing.

  18. @Tim Dunn – you are really blaming Air Canada’s mess on NavCanada? That may be the most dishonest claim I’ve seen from you yet. NavCanada is far more efficient than the FAA ATO and by the way they aren’t just responsible for Canadian airspace but for the North Atlantic (including Delta’s operations to Europe!).

  19. The FAA has some extremely competent, highly skilled employees. Unfortunately, their hands are tied by bureaucracy. The Biden administration’s appointment of an incompetent director, who knows nothing about aviation, is an excellent example. Fortunately, he was not approved by the Senate.

    Homeland Security’s TSA shares culpability for flight delays and lost luggage as well.

  20. Maybe it’s time to raise the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 (or 67 as is being proposed for pilots)?

  21. Gary,
    I am simply noting that US airlines right now are running far better operations than their Canadian and European peers which use ATC systems which are of the model you are advocating.
    Clearly the reason for how bad Air Canada and Lufthansa and British Airways etc are operating is the AIRLINES’ fault, not ATC. There simply is not real world evidence to show that another model will work better. Airline operations are only as good as the airlines that use the system. Airlines that have ATC systems that should be better than the US’ are screwing up worse than US airlines.

  22. jsn55 nailed it. I said this in my barber’s chair on 3/14/2020 when he was forced to shut down after my cut.

  23. Looking for a single cause of flight delays is as shortsighted as looking for a single solution. Failure has its own inertia, and this behemoth won’t be stopped and turned around without a lot of effort from everyone. Start by removing the incentive not to work.

  24. 1. Airlines routinely schedule more flights to land per hour than an airport’s capacity per hour. Unless an airport gets more capacity (build more runways or decrease separation standards), or airlines stop doing the same thing, nothing will change.

    2. Communities do not want more noise so routes that could increase efficiency are not used.

    4. Environmentalists don’t want more concrete (runways.)

    4. FAA management has been overrun with unqualified people for various reasons but two of them are pay and diversity. Top controllers make as much as Managers due to the federal cap so experienced people have no incentive to take a management role. As for hiring people for any other reason than merit…make your own decision on how well that works out.

    5. Controller staffing and morale is at an all time low. Many facilities have had mandatory 6 day work weeks for 6+ years with no relief in sight.

  25. I retired after 30 years of air traffic work. The FAA has always hired in spurts. Staffing has been an issue forever.
    One problem is training. You can’t walk into a facility one day and do the job the next. It is like brain surgery, not everyone can do it. It takes years to train a controller.

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