Four major United States airlines will cut down on round trip service to New York this summer to curb flight delays. American Airlines, JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are facing a shortage of air traffic controllers.

Expect to see flights at LaGuardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport reduced by 10 percent this summer. The shortage of controllers made the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration advise all the airlines to conform before it becomes a problem for airline customers.

While changes have not been made yet, all the airlines have confirmed that a reduction in flights is in the works since the FAA shortage announcement last month.

“We need to reduce flying and make sure we can operate what we’ve got,” JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said in a statement.

tail wing of Jet Blue aircraft
Photo credit: Joe Raedle

FAA Projected Shortage in Early March

In March, the FAA projected that the air traffic controller staffing in the New York area would only meet 54 percent of the required levels. By comparison, the national staffing level would be around 81 percent. If airlines don’t reduce flights at LaGuardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport by roughly 45 percent, customers may experience flight delays this summer.

The shortage of FAA staff is not a new issue. In June of last year, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian identified air traffic control as the most strained aviation industry segment. United Airlines executives shared a similar sentiment a few weeks later. The training period for new air traffic controllers, which is three years, is part of the problem. The FAA having to pause training during the pandemic compounded onto the depleted workforce.

The FAA’s management of air traffic control has come under increased scrutiny, due to several recent near-misses at airports throughout the country. In major cities, like Austin, Boston and New York, planes have narrowly avoided collisions. It remains unclear whether these close calls were the result of air traffic control errors or mistakes made by pilots.

FAA Solution To Controller Shortage

The FAA regulator is taking an unusual measure to alleviate congestion caused by the ongoing situation.

Airlines will be permitted to idle up to 10 percent of their slots at John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport. At Newark Liberty International Airport, there will be an adjustment on the runway timings between May 15 and Sept. 15.

Each takeoff and landing requires one slot or runway timing. Airlines are typically obligated to use them 80 percent of the time.

The FAA’s waiver will also extend to Washington’s Reagan National airport slots. However, by April 30, airlines will have to request waivers from the FAA.

close up shot of Delta Air Lines aircraft exterior
Photo credit: Barry Williams

The Outlook On Delays for Summer Travel

There are two major issues that passengers are facing with these changes. One of the issues that customers will face is that a reduction in the number of flights will reduce the number of seats available.

The second major issue customers will face is the higher impact that may hit less popular travel cities. Airlines have the autonomy to choose which flights they want to cancel. If airlines cancel more flights in smaller cities, those flight cuts will negatively impact the passengers.

One solution suggested posed by analyst Conor Cunningham from Melius Research is that airlines could consider consolidating flights to achieve the required reduction in operations. For example, a consolidated flight would consist of replacing two 76-seat regional flights with a single flight on a 150-seat Boeing 737.

people standing Inside London Heathrow Airport
Photo credit: Frank Augstein

While the outlook of summer travel is still up in the air, it’s not all bad news.

Ongoing constraints on capacity, a 30 percent reduction in fuel costs and positive demand commentary are contributing to a positive outlook for the industry. Wall Street’s optimistic outlook translates to higher airline revenues and profit margins.

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