If the Thanksgiving holiday was a test in airline reliability, then airlines passed — no doubt a welcome relief for frustrated travelers who took to the skies over the summer.
But moving forward, millions of Americans will continue to stress test the entire system this holiday season. But unless our government steps in and rights its own ship, airline travel will continue to teeter on the edge.
Like most other industries, aviation was not immune to the lasting impact of the labor market shortage caused by COVID-19, nor the changes in worker behaviors. Today’s hiring environment is a challenging one, and employers are having to adjust to post-pandemic employee lifestyles.
Despite those challenges, airlines are better equipped than ever. Since the beginning of this year, airlines have hired more than 40,000 new employees and they continue to invest in workforce pipelines such as pilot academies and university partnerships to accommodate future demand.
They have also developed innovative staffing models and have adjusted schedules to reflect the “new normal,” flying about 85% of their 2019 schedules, despite now having more staff than before the pandemic.
Recent headlines have critiqued airline performance. In some cases, that criticism has been deserved, but there is much more to the story.
Our nation’s air travel system is complex: The federal government and the industry must work together, not against one another, to identify and implement effective solutions.
While airlines have made significant steps in the right direction, improvements must also come from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration, which controls the National Airspace System.
There are three main opportunities that should be considered as part of the more extensive solution set. First, the FAA needs to hire enough air traffic controllers, so the air traffic control facilities are staffed appropriately. Second, the FAA needs to request enough money to maintain our aging infrastructure and continue to modernize. Third, Congress needs to fund the FAA adequately with a stable, predictable funding stream isolated from continuing resolutions and government shutdowns.
The FAA must ensure that its air traffic control facilities have sufficient controllers to safely control flights. This is critically important, as these vital government employees manage aircraft traffic across the country and ensure safety throughout the skies.
Because of air traffic controller staffing shortages at major airports, flights have been grounded, delayed, or canceled. Consider a summer tweet from the FAA itself about the matter in New York — the nation’s largest aviation market: “Due to unexpected staff availability tonight, the FAA must reduce the flow of aircraft around New York City to maintain safety. Evening delays may be 2 hrs at @JFKairport, @LGAairport & @EWRairport.”
This is unacceptable. Those are three of America’s busiest airports and ports of entry for America’s largest city. Passengers are made to wait, for reasons unknown other than “unexpected staff availability.”
Florida has also experienced the domino effect of FAA staffing shortages. The Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZJX) is a crucial hub for flights throughout the rest of the country as well as Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet as of late June, the Jacksonville center was short of air traffic controllers for 27 out of 30 days that month, causing a cascade of delays.
FAA data from across the country tells a compelling story, and not a good one. Staffing data for the FAA’s Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities shows that staffing is down at the busiest, most important air traffic control facilities: 12% in Southern California and 8% in New York, Houston, and Jacksonville.
The FAA has the ability to act on this issue. They have vowed to hire 1,500 more controllers, but a timeline must be set for that process. Training for air traffic controllers takes two years, plus crucial on-the-job experience. That work should begin with urgency.
The FAA needs to be forthcoming and transparent and ask Congress to fund it to the levels needed to pay for controllers, especially as the National Airspace System evolves to include new entrants, more traffic, and increased pressures. And it is up to Congress to make the smart decision to allocate the funding, to make a smart investment, for the future of the airspace system and our country.
Our country needs a strong aviation system. But that lies in the hands of the FAA and Congress to work collaboratively with the aviation industry to ensure we have the human infrastructure and modernized systems that move us forward.
We cannot afford to fall further behind the rest of the world.
Paul Rinaldi served as the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association from 2009 to 2021. He is now president and founder of Rinaldi Consultants LLC.