As millions of Americans prepare to fly this Memorial Day weekend, they may face an unexpected challenge: a shortage of air traffic controllers that could cause delays and cancellations across the country.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has acknowledged that it is short of about 3,000 controllers, or nearly 20% of its workforce, compared to its authorized level. The agency blames the pandemic for disrupting its hiring and training pipeline, as well as accelerating retirements among veteran controllers.
The staffing shortfall has already affected some of the busiest airports in the nation, such as Denver and New York, where the FAA has asked airlines to reduce flights by up to 10% this summer. The problem could worsen as travel demand surges to pre-pandemic levels, putting more pressure on the air traffic system.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said the controller shortage is the biggest issue for the industry and called for more Congressional funding to address it.
“The secretary of transportation acknowledged that they’re short 3,000 controllers. We have fewer air traffic controllers today than we had 30 years ago,” Kirby said in an interview with NPR. “That is by far the biggest issue, and the most addressable.”
Kirby said the lack of controllers affects not only the flights at the affected airports, but also those that are scheduled to fly elsewhere in the country.
“These issues are never isolated. When Denver had that reduction in arrival rates, that doesn’t just impact those flights. Those are airplanes that are scheduled to keep flying around the whole country for the rest of the day,” he said.
The FAA said it is working to hire and train more controllers as quickly as possible, but it could take years to fill the gap. The agency also said it is implementing new technologies and procedures to improve efficiency and safety.
Meanwhile, travelers should brace for potential disruptions and check with their airlines before heading to the airport.
- United Airlines CEO says the industry needs more air traffic controllers | NPR | May 24, 2023
- Air traffic controller shortage could cause delays this summer | CBS News | May 23, 2023
- Air traffic control staffing crisis threatens summer travel | The Hill | May 22, 2023