|United CEO Faults FAA as Storms Prompt More Flight Cancellations -- 4th Update|
Dow Jones Newswires June 27, 2023 05:56:00 PM ET
United Airlines' chief executive blasted the Federal Aviation Administration after severe storms led to thousands of canceled flights in recent days, saying the agency's air-traffic-control problems exacerbated the disruption.
With summer travel in full swing, scattered storms began wreaking havoc on travel in the Northeast on Saturday, and the number of disrupted flights swelled on Sunday and Monday. Airlines had canceled about 1,500 U.S. flights as of Tuesday afternoon as storms lingered, in addition to the more than 3,500 that were scrubbed on Sunday and Monday.
The FAA said thunderstorms would continue to pose challenges Tuesday afternoon and evening. In one notice, it said LaGuardia Airport was "almost in gridlock," without enough available departure gates.
The onslaught of storms in the Northeast has set off one of the worst stretches for air travel this year. United CEO Scott Kirby said a shortage of air-traffic controllers also played a role.
"I'm also frustrated that the FAA frankly failed us this weekend," he wrote in a message reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Kirby said that the FAA cut arrival rates by 40% and departure rates by 75% on Saturday. That, he said, led to a cascade of delays, canceled flights and diverted planes that "put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening."
The FAA said staffing constraints didn't contribute to delays at East Coast air-traffic-control facilities Monday or Tuesday. "We will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem, " an FAA spokesman said.
Airlines face the challenge of repairing their operations in time for the busy July 4 holiday. The Transportation Security Administration has said it expects to screen 2.82 million travelers on Friday, which would be a new postpandemic peak.
As of Tuesday afternoon United had canceled about 14% of flights scheduled for the day, outpacing rivals, according to flight-data provider Anuvu. The airline canceled about 18% of its flights Monday.
Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways were also affected by the recent storms. JetBlue on Tuesday scrubbed over 14% of its flights, while Delta's cancellations eased to roughly 8% of flights, according to Anuvu.
Delta said it has worked to stabilize its operations after the rounds of thunderstorms Sunday and Monday, and expects to be "fully reset" by Wednesday.
United's Kirby said he plans to discuss with FAA and Transportation Department officials how to prevent a repeat of similar flight disruptions this summer. He said that air-traffic-control shortages predate the FAA's current leadership.
United has also struggled to match crews with flights as its operation has been upended. In a message Monday, the union that represents United flight attendants said some flight attendants had spent three hours on hold waiting for instructions amid a deluge of reassignments.
The airline said it was working to catch up on call volumes, including staff increases in crew scheduling and mandatory overtime on the scheduling team. United said it also has ways flight attendants can check in electronically for trips and schedule changes.
The number of people passing through U.S. airports in recent weeks has hit the highest levels in more than three years. Packed flights with few empty seats can make it harder for passengers to find alternatives when cancellations and delays upend their plans, and customers have complained of long waits on hold or in line for help.
The disruptions came after what had been a fairly smooth spring. The industry is under pressure from regulators to perform better this summer than it did the past few years coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, when rapidly returning travel demand overwhelmed airlines' still-fragile operations. Cancellation rates have been tracking below last year's levels this year.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Tuesday that the airline's operation has made strides but can still be knocked off course by bad weather.
"We're going to continue to build that durability around weather," he said at an investor presentation, where the company raised its earnings forecast for the current quarter because of strong demand.
As storms walloped big airports over the weekend and on Monday, the FAA slowed or halted flights at major hubs in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia and Florida.
Backups and gridlock grew at airports as thunderstorms left some routes inaccessible. Dozens of flights were diverted Sunday, and airlines moved to cut some Monday flights in advance as they sought to recover from storms that left some crews and airplanes out of place.
The FAA had cautioned that New York could be challenging this summer and asked airlines to cull flights there because of short staffing in a key air-traffic-control facility that manages skies in the area. Airlines cut back, but some executives said they still expected headaches when bad weather flared up.
The Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General last week said many of the most critical air-traffic control face staffing shortfalls, which it says poses a risk to air-traffic operations. The FAA temporarily closed its main controller training academy in 2020 and paused on-the-job training because of the pandemic and has struggled to catch back up.
Write to Alison Sider at firstname.lastname@example.org