Flight delays could get a lot worse this summer as a shortage of air traffic controllers serving airports in the nation’s busiest airspace continues, industry experts say.
The Federal Aviation Administration projects that airports in the New York City air corridor will experience a 45 percent increase in delays between May and September as a result of increased flight operations. In the same period last year, lack of qualified controllers was the primary cause of 41,498 aircraft delays, as reported by Flight Global.
The FAA’s solution is to allow airlines to temporarily give up as many as 10 percent of their guaranteed assigned slots at New York’s John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports, as well as Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, between May 15 and Sept. 15.
It will also allow airlines to return approved timings—a system similar to slotting—at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) during the same period.
On March 22, the agency issued a limited waiver for airlines to give up assigned slots at those airports; the carriers have until April 30 to notify the FAA about the slots they intend to return.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said last week they would agree to return 10 percent of their slots at New York airports while American Airlines announced it was still assessing the waiver, as reported by The Points Guy.
What are slots?
Slots are authorizations to either take off or land at a particular airport on a particular day during a specified time period. The system, used in the U.S. and around the world, works to prevent repeated delays from too many planes arriving or departing at once at extremely busy airports.
The Washington and New York-area airports have a limited number of slots to go around, which makes them immensely valuable to airlines that hold them or are looking to obtain more. If an airline does not use its slots, it could lose them permanently, with the FAA likely reallocating them to other airlines.
In addition, New York and Washington are home to multiple airline hubs and, in some cases, are primary hubs for transatlantic flights. American Airlines operates hubs at JFK, LaGuardia and Reagan; Delta Air Lines operates hubs at Kennedy and LaGuardia; JetBlue’s largest hub is at Kennedy; and United operates its largest transatlantic hub at Newark.
Reducing the number of slots could disproportionally impact low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers serving Northeast airports that offer lower fares to travelers said Brett Snyder, founder of aviation industry site Cranky Flier.
“If you’re one of the smaller guys, like one of the ultra-low-cost carriers with fewer slots, I can’t imagine a world where they would voluntarily give anything back because they want to fly more,” he said.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the FAA issued a more expansive waiver covering most slot-controlled U.S. airports to allow airlines to reduce flying during low demand. That waiver expired in October 2022.
In its limited waiver issued last week, the FAA acknowledged that the pandemic had created a backlog in training new air traffic controllers covering New York airspace, referred to as N90. The number of certified professional controllers in the N90 airspace is at 54 percent of staffing targets, compared to 81 percent nationwide, according to FAA data.
“The airspace complexity resulting from the close proximity of the major commercial airports serving the New York City region is a significant contributing factor to delays,” the FAA said in its release announcing the waiver.
“Dedicated training initiatives have been successful in reducing most of the training backlog with the exception of N90. The staffing shortfalls at N90 limit the FAA’s ability to provide expeditious services to aircraft operators and their passengers that traverse this airspace.”
In an interview with The Washington Post on Oct. 18, 2022, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby called for Congress to increase funding for the FAA to raise staffing of the air traffic control system.
“We have invested billions of dollars in the infrastructure around this country and we wind up with air traffic control delays for one or two sick calls,” he said. “That creates impacts of hundreds of delays and cancellations.”
What’s next for travelers?
If airlines give up their landing slots, Snyder says travelers should expect an improvement in operations and less delays but higher prices for plane tickets in affected markets.
“Airlines are very bullish on demand this summer. They do not see any issues and think they are going to be in great shape,” he said. “Summer fares right now are already very high. You cut back more capacity, fares will go even higher.”
Reducing the number of slots could force airlines to upgrade some flights to larger mainline aircraft to maintain their seating capacity, but at the expense of more frequencies provided on smaller regional jets that cater to business travelers. At the same time, ultra-low-cost carriers, like Spirit’s nonstop route between PIT and Newark, continue to offer consistent deals.
“For many cities from New York, maybe you could do one mainline flight a day. But one mainline plane a day is not going to adequately serve the business pattern you need,” said Snyder. “You usually need at least a couple flights for utility from a frequency perspective.”
Upgrading to mainline planes in New York and Washington could provide relief for legacy carriers with regional affiliates. Airlines, such as Delta and United, have ordered hundreds of Airbus and Boeing narrowbody planes, and each airline plans to replace regional jets with larger mainline aircraft as regional carriers continue to cope with ongoing pilot shortages.
Larger mainline planes could free up regional jets to fly out of other hubs to increase connections that were lost from the pandemic and pilot shortages, Snyder said.