With memories of last summer’s air travel meltdown still fresh, the Federal Aviation Administration is moving to head off a repeat this year, urging major airlines in the most congested airspace in the country, the New York area, to trim peak season schedules starting May 15.
And most of the biggest airlines in New York are going along with the plan, even though it could cut into their revenues. In recent days, American, Delta, JetBlue, and United have all agreed to slash thousands of departures over the four months ending Sept. 15, to or from New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports, Newark Liberty, and Reagan National in Washington.
What those four airports have in common is that they’re so busy, airlines have to win rights to take off or land at a specific time, otherwise known as “slots.” That’s intended to keep traffic flowing and prevent airport gridlock.
But the slots, which are doled out by the FAA, come with a quid pro quo – there’s a “use-it-or-lose-it” rule to prevent airlines from hoarding unused slots to keep them from falling into the hands of competitors. Therefore, airlines sometimes sublease extra slots to other airlines, or pad schedules with flights that might not be profitable, simply to hang on to their precious landing rights.
But the FAA said it would make an exception to that rule this time, giving airlines that temporarily surrender up to 10% of their slots the right to reclaim them at a later date. The resulting reduction in traffic should “keep air travel to and from New York City safe and smooth,” the FAA said.
What prompted this unusual move is a severe air traffic controller shortage in the Northeast U.S., which could lead to even worse delays than last summer’s. Indeed, in an announcement last month, the FAA painted a dire picture of the staffing shortfall, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic “safety mitigations” for slowing its recruitment and training of new hires. Nationwide, 81% of controller positions are currently filled, but the critical ATC facility near New York City is only at 54% of its staffing target, the FAA said. Given the complexity of the airspace over the Big Apple, and the time it takes to get new employees up to speed, the chance of delays in the coming months was high.
Airlines have until April 30 to file their plans with the FAA, but some have already announced specific summertime flight cuts, according to aviation data provider Cirium.
American Airlines said it would remove some 4,790 flights at the four targeted airports, including reductions in frequencies from LaGuardia to Dallas and Chicago, from Newark to Charlotte and Chicago, and flights between LGA and Reagan National, and to Miami and St. Louis.
Delta is cutting 2,000 flights so far, reducing frequencies from LaGuardia to both Dulles and Reagan National in Washington, as well as reductions on some smaller routes like JFK to Bangor Maine.
JetBlue has pared more than 3,500 flights, affecting markets out of its JFK hub to cities like Boston, Buffalo, Los Angeles, and Miami.
United has cut more than 4,000 flights, on some key routes out of its Newark hub to places like Washington (where it serves both airports), to Fort Lauderdale Orlando, Palm Beach, Tampa, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh.
To buffer the impact on travelers, the FAA is encouraging airlines to replace smaller jets on some routes with bigger planes, where possible, while the cutbacks are in effect. Airlines were already moving in that direction, said Mike Arnot, a spokesman for Cirium.
"Airlines would rather use slots for longer flights and larger aircraft, than for the relatively short hops to Boston and Washington,” which produce less ancillary revenue, he said. He added that there may not be enough demand from business travelers to justify frequent shuttle flights in the northeast corridor.