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Widespread summer travel disruptions bring attention to an underfunded FAA

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As severe thunderstorms continue to batter the U.S. and cause thousands of cancellations and delays at airports across the country, some airlines are pointing fingers at the Federal Aviation Administration for the shortcomings.

On Tuesday morning, airlines reported over 1,300 delayed flights and 870 cancellations. The issue has brought renewed attention to the FAA, which slowed and halted flights out of major Northeast hubs like New York, Newark, Philadelphia and Boston this past weekend due to thunderstorms in the region.

Monday saw close to 3,000 cancellations and almost 9,000 delays in the U.S., according to FlightAware. The agency also experienced an equipment outage in the Washington, D.C. area, further exacerbating the already-widespread disruptions. An overheated power cable at an FAA facility brought flights to a halt for about two hours Sunday.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby criticized the FAA over the delays and cancellations in a Monday memo to the carrier’s staff, as The Wall Street Journal first reported. Among U.S. airlines, United — which operates a major hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) — reported the most cancellations and delays due to the inclement weather.

“I’m also frustrated that the FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” the United CEO wrote in the memo obtained by TPG.

Email memo from United CEO Scott Kirby to employees.
Email memo from United CEO Scott Kirby to employees. UNITED AIRLINES

Kirby said in the memo that the FAA has been able to handle severe weather in the past without significantly hampering the airline’s operations and passenger experience.

He added that the FAA cut arrival rates by 40% and departure rates by 75%, leading to mass delays and cancellations during the past three days. As disruptions peaked on Monday, United had over 1,200 delays and almost 600 cancellations. Kirby estimated that around 150,000 United passengers were affected by the disruptions.

“[T]hat put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening,” he continued in the memo.

As of Tuesday morning, the Chicago-based carrier had 379 delays and 372 cancellations, according to FlightAware. Also, Newark has led U.S. airports with the most travel disruptions during the past three days, with 158 cancellations and 85 delays as of Tuesday morning.

An FAA spokesperson said in a statement that the agency “will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem.”

The agency has received scrutiny this past year after it issued a rare nationwide ground stop in January following an early-morning computer outage. The incident highlighted the FAA’s dated infrastructure and staffing shortages that have hindered the agency since the pandemic began.

However, some airline industry experts have cautioned against placing all the blame on the FAA for the summer travel woes. Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research, said the disruptions were “a shared responsibility.”

“It is not fair to pin all the blame on the FAA; they are trying to hire and have been trying to hire more air traffic controllers,” Harteveldt said, adding that the agency has struggled to market itself to younger people.

Harteveldt added that the FAA has also struggled to obtain adequate funding from the federal government for infrastructure upgrades.

“If the government doesn’t give the FAA enough money, then it’s difficult for the FAA to fulfill all of its obligations,” Harteveldt said.

The FAA is up for a reauthorization vote in September, and that reauthorization bill, which includes provisions for modernizing the agency’s equipment and initiatives to boost hiring, has bipartisan support in Congress.

Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the most U.S. airlines, said in a statement that it has repeatedly warned of FAA staffing issues impeding travel as it returns to pre-pandemic levels, referring to a Department of Transportation audit on the FAA that came to the same conclusion. 

Sharon Pinkerton, A4A’s senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy, said in a Senate commerce committee hearing in February regarding the FAA’s reauthorization that she did not believe the agency was equipped to handle a resurgence in travel.

“Unfortunately, the FAA is on the precipice of being overwhelmed, if they are not already,” Pinkerton said at the Senate hearing.

The widespread disruptions come as the airline industry gears up for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, which is expected to be one of the busiest travel periods in recent memory. While the disruptions seemed to wane Tuesday, it is unclear if any other severe weather could again trigger mass cancellations and delays during the summer travel season.

Kirby said in the memo he plans to speak with officials at the DOT and FAA about preventing similar travel meltdowns this summer and offer to lobby for more resources for the FAA. The United CEO also said the carrier will be “overstaffed” and “over resourced” to mitigate the impact of any further travel disruptions.

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