There’s a huge debate between airlines (especially United) and the FAA over who’s at fault for delays this summer. Obviously weather is a huge issue for airlines, but even there, an Air Traffic Organization that’s failed to properly staff and failed to invest successfully in technology means less throughput both under normal operations and when things slow down with weather.
The FAA asked airlines to reduce their flying in and out of New York this summer, because of a shortage of air traffic controllers. New York TRACON has been staffed only at around 60% and the FAA hasn’t acted. And yet they still can’t handle the volume that remains. Most people suppose this is a lagging problem coming out of the pandemic, since staffing across the board has been a challenge for businesses and especially in hospitality and transportation. But that’s actually not the issue.
- Staffing shortages aren’t new. The Office of Inspector General says they raised the flag about understaffing in 2016.
- FAA moves slowly, training controllers at less-demanding facilities, but actually transferring to new facilities takes up to a year.
- They don’t pay enough of a differential to recruit candidates to the New York area
- There’s no actual need for controllers to be physically present in a location with modern technology, but the FAA has largely walked away from remote towers projects where they can handle traffic virtually. The agency has not explained why it has seemingly abandoned the idea after a decade, and after declaring the pilot project in Leesburg to be “operationally viable.” They’ve pursued redesign of conventional towers at higher cost instead. According to the head of the air traffic controllers union, remote towers provide better tools to controllers than conventional ones.
Better management at the FAA would improve operations significantly. That doesn’t excuse airlines, whose own staffing issues led to meltdowns in 2021 and 2022.
However 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.
And it means there’s little accountability when they know about problems and do not act for years, and when they fail to manage technology projects and so it’s taken decades to even eliminate paper tracking of flights.
— gary leff (@garyleff) July 2, 2023
The Department of Transportation is going after airlines to provide consumer compensation for delays, which is fair, but fails 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 too.