Severe weather, FAA shortfalls kick off rocky start to summer air travel

The CEO of United Airlines blamed staffing shortages at the FAA for worsening flight disruptions over the weekend.

Severe weather, FAA shortfalls kick off rocky start to summer air travel

As severe storms and staffing problems sparked a rough start to the summer, flight disruptions increased on Tuesday.

FlightAware data shows that more than 7,700 U.S. flights have been delayed and almost 2,200 canceled on Tuesday, after thunderstorms disrupted thousands of flights over the weekend. The airspace was heavily congested, even though it is a sunny day. This is on top of the more than 8,800 U.S. flight delays and nearly 2,250 cancellations that occurred Monday.

Federal Aviation Administration has halted flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport as well as John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Newark Liberty International Airport located in New Jersey. At these airports, delays were three hours and longer on average. The FAA stated that thunderstorms blocked arrival and departure routes.

These disruptions occur just before the Fourth of July travel season, when millions of people are expected to fly. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said that it could screen more passengers than it did in 2019 before the pandemic. This would increase competition for seats.

After a series of flight delays last spring and summer that caused carriers to reduce their overly ambitious schedules, the Biden administration has pressed airlines to improve operations. The industry was still struggling to recover from the storms of this past weekend.

Thunderstorms can be more difficult for airlines to handle because they form without as much warning as other weather obstacles such a winter storms and hurricanes. Rolling delays can force crews to exceed federally mandated limits on workdays and worsen disruptions.

FlightAware data shows that 30,000 flights arrived late between Saturday and Monday, with cancellations rates more than triple the annual average.

Some airline executives also blamed the delays on a shortage of air traffic control officers.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on Monday, "the FAA failed us this weekend." During Saturday's storms, the FAA reduced the arrival rates by 40 percent and the departure rates by 75 percent at Newark Liberty International Airport (New Jersey), one of the airline’s largest hubs.

Kirby wrote, "It caused massive delays, cancellations, diversion, and crews out of position." Kirby's staff note was seen by CNBC. This put everyone in a bad position when the weather hit on Sunday. The FAA's staffing shortages compounded this situation.

In a press release, a FAA spokesperson said: "We are always willing to work with anyone who is serious about joining us in solving a problem."

Staffing issues are not new. The Covid-19 virus halted the hiring and training of air traffic controllers. Now, the agency is trying to catch-up.

In a report released last week, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Transportation stated that a lack of staff in air traffic control puts air traffic operations in danger. The FAA and certain airlines agreed in March to reduce flights at New York's busy airports due to staffing shortages.

The problems persist as airlines prepare crews and schedules to meet the high demand for travel during summer.

The disruptions also frustrated the flight crews, who were forced to wait on hold while reassignments were made.

In a memo sent to its members on Monday, the Association of Flight Attendants - CWA (which represents flight attendants for United and other airlines) said that crew scheduling was being held up longer than three hours.

The union stated that "Union leadership and Inflight Management have acknowledged the need to do something in order permanently address these adverse circumstances resulting from irregular flights."

United Airlines responded to the memo from the union by saying that it had "deployed [all] available resources to catch-up on the call volume. This includes increasing staffing for crew scheduling, and mandatory overtime in the scheduling team."

According to a union message, the airline will pay flight attendants three times as much for trips taken between June 27 and July 6.

JetBlue Airways, based in New York, also experienced high levels of delays over the last few days. In a memo to crew members on Monday that was reviewed by CNBC it acknowledged that it could improve its handling of disruptions.

Don Uselmann said that JetBlue could have updated the crew reporting times to reduce wait times and staff waiting for flights.

In his note, he stated that "Summer Peak is officially underway and extreme weather, ATC staffing limitations, and the delays resulting from them will put all airlines through their paces." "This weekend's (irregular operations) won't be the last but the combination events put acute stress on the operation, making it more difficult than most."