WARRENTON, Va. — During a morning briefing in early May, staffers at the Federal Air Traffic Command Center rattled off some of the day’s obstacles: storms near the Florida coast and in Texas, a military aircraft exercise and a report of a bird strike at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The center, about an hour’s drive from Washington DC, is responsible for coordinating the complex network of more than 40,000 flights per day across the United States. Just after 7 a.m. ET, 3,500 flights were already airborne. At peak travel times, this number can increase to over 5,000 flights at a time.
As air travel returns almost to pre-Covid pandemic levels, although airlines remain understaffed, the agency and airlines are trying to control the rising rate of delays and cancellations that are ruining vacations and costing airlines tens of millions of dollars can cost in lost revenue.
The problems occur during the busy spring and summer travel season, which also coincides with some of the most disruptive weather conditions for airlines – thunderstorms.
LaKisha Price, the air traffic manager at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, said staffers are monitoring potential problems in the country’s airspace “every day, every hour.”
The center is staffed 24 hours a day.
The FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center.
Erin Black | CNBC
From the beginning of the year through June 13, airlines canceled 3% of the roughly 4 million US commercial flights for the period, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. Another 20% were delayed, with passengers waiting an average of 48 minutes.
In the same period in 2019 before the pandemic, 2% of flights were canceled and 17% were delayed, with a similar average wait time, according to FlightAware.
LaKisha Price Air Traffic Manager at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center
Erin Black | CNBC
Typically, the FAA partially manages air traffic flow by holding inbound traffic at origin airports or slowing down arrivals.
Flight cancellations and delays over the past year and into 2022 have raised concerns among some lawmakers.
No easy solutions
With no quick fix in sight, the FAA and airlines are scrambling to find other solutions. One possibility is to allow airlines to fly at lower altitudes to avoid weather challenges, although the approach uses more fuel.
Airlines are also developing their own solutions. In April, American Airlines launched a program called HEAT, which analyzes traffic and potential disruptions to identify early which flights need to be delayed to avoid a cascade of cancellations.
“We can start hours in advance, in some cases five, six hours, before what we think the storm will be,” said American Airlines chief operating officer David Seymour.
“We need to be able to be very nimble and adaptable to the scenario as it’s playing out,” he added.
The pandemic slowed air traffic controller training, but the FAA hired more than 500 new air traffic controllers last year to increase its workforce to about 14,000. The agency plans to hire more than 4,800 more over the next five years. The FAA said it was in the midst of hiring a campaign called “Be ATC,” and said it will work with social media influencers and hold Instagram live events about the job.
The job is not for everyone. Applicants must be no older than 30 and must retire at 56. Pilots in the US are required to retire at 65 and airlines are currently facing a wave of retirements, some of which have been accelerated by the pandemic as airlines urged them to leave early to cut costs. Lawmakers this year considered legislation that would raise the retirement age for pilots by at least two years.
Storms in Texas
Back in the command center, the cavernous room where air traffic specialists, members of the airline and private aviation industries, and meteorologists work, has large screens showing air traffic and weather high along the main wall. It gives a bird’s-eye view of the country’s air travel, which has recovered so quickly that fares are surpassing 2019 levels.
“The problem is Texas right now,” said John Lucia, national traffic management officer at the center, during one of the morning briefings. He pointed to a cluster of thunderstorms that threatened to delay dozens of flights at East Texas airports.
He noted that the weather was supposed to hit the Dallas-Forth Worth area around 10 a.m
“So we have a couple of hours to think about it,” said Lucia, a more than three-decade FAA veteran.
Over the past year, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport became the world’s second-busiest airport, thanks to booming US travel and a lack of international flights. The airport is the home hub of American Airlines. Also nearby is Dallas Love Field, home base of Southwest Airlines.
Bad weather causes 70% of US flight delays in an average year, according to the FAA. But there are also other reasons for delays.
“We saw people scampering down the runway,” said Price, the center’s air traffic manager. “We had wildlife on the runways. You have to be prepared for anything.”
Traffic jam in Florida
Some of the most congested airspace was in Florida. The state has long been a popular tourist destination but has become even more of a hotspot for travelers seeking outdoor getaways during the pandemic. Some airports like Tampa and Miami are seeing a higher number of airline capacities compared to before the arrival of Covid-19.
At the same time, the state is prone to thunderstorms, which can disrupt air traffic for hours. Airlines and the FAA have clashed over who’s to blame, with airlines sometimes blaming air traffic control, including ATC’s staff shortages, for delays costing them by the minute.
One airline solution has been to limit their flights despite rising demand. JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines and most recently Delta Air Lines have all cut their flight schedules as they struggle with staffing shortages and routine challenges like the weather to give themselves more backup when things go wrong.
In May, the FAA organized a two-day meeting with Florida airlines about some of the recent delays. After that, the FAA announced it would increase staff at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, which oversees air traffic in five states — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and North and South Carolina — and tends to deal with challenges from inclement weather, space launches and military training exercises.
The FAA was on the verge of limiting flights to Florida but had said it would help airlines find alternative routes and altitudes.
For example, the agency is also directing more traffic across the Gulf of Mexico, Price said.
Spring and summer thunderstorms are among the toughest challenges because they can be so unpredictable.
American Airlines’ Seymour said the airline still has room for improvement: “We continue to look for better ways to handle these situations.”