The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will allow carriers to surrender some of their takeoff and landing rights at crowded East Coast airports without penalty this summer as the industry braces for another season of delays and cancellations.
The regulator on Wednesday told airlines that they could temporarily return up to 10 percent of their flight slots at New York’s JFK, LaGuardia (LGA), and Newark Liberty (EWR) airports and Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport (DCA) between May 15 and September 15, without the risk of surrendering them or being backfilled by competitors.
Under usual circumstances, airlines that aren’t using their slots at busy airports 80 percent of the time risk forfeiting them.
The waiver will give carriers “the ability to reduce operations during the peak summer travel period, which are likely to be exacerbated by the effects of Air Traffic Controller staffing shortfalls,” the FAA said.
In return, the agency has asked carriers to operate larger planes to accommodate expected demand with fewer flights and to communicate scheduling changes to passengers.
The FAA hopes to minimize the disruption that occurred last summer when a rebound in passenger numbers following the pandemic led to a cascade of flight delays and cancellations.
Airlines have said staff shortages at air traffic control facilities, especially in New York and Florida, were partly to blame for last summer’s chaos.
Last summer, more than 41,000 flights out of New York airports were delayed partly due to Air Traffic Control (ATC) staffing woes. However, the FAA said bad weather was still the main driver of delays, responsible for nearly 85 percent of delay minutes in the region, while understaffing accounted for around 6 percent.
However, with the staffing shortfall among air traffic controllers still unresolved and the number of flights transiting through those airports due to rise this summer, delays could increase by a further 45 percent if no action is taken, the agency acknowledged.
The ATC facility that oversees the three New York airports has just 54 percent of its targeted numbers of fully trained controllers. Although controllers at other stages of training can cover many positions, the shortfall can lead to delays when demand rises during the peak summer travel season or when the weather deteriorates. The FAA intends to reassign control of Newark airspace to a similar facility in Philadelphia, but the handover won’t be complete in time for the summer 2023 season.
Airlines welcomed the intervention by the FAA. Airlines for America, a trade group representing the major U.S. carriers, said the airlines “have been making every effort, including hiring at a rapid pace and reducing schedules, to prioritize smooth operations” and have already trimmed around 10 percent of their scheduled flights this spring.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said they would return up to 10 percent of their takeoff and landing slots at the three largest New York Airports and Reagan National Airport this summer. In addition, to minimize customer disruption, they will operate larger aircraft with more seats and offer affected passengers alternative fights.
“We are prepared to do our part,” said United Chief Operating Officer Toby Enqvist. But he added that the carrier wants the FAA’s assurance that rivals won’t snatch up forfeited slots.
A spokesperson for Delta said that the airline is reviewing its network “to ensure the best customer experience throughout the summer travel season, and we are committed to working with the FAA on measures to ensure the safety and efficiency of operations at the NY/NJ Airports.”
Meanwhile, American Airlines said it was still considering whether to apply for a waiver to temporarily surrender some of its allotments at the airports. Still, they acknowledged that doing so would improve airspace conditions in the crowded region.