How United Became This Week’s Most Incompetent Airline

The U.S. air travel industry is wading through yet another rough week. Since Saturday, major carriers have delayed or canceled tens of thousands of domestic flights as brutal thunderstorms, wildfire smoke, and otherwise extreme weather conditions blanketed the Northeast, Midwest, and South. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded across the country, left with no efficient means by which to complete their voyages, or to prepare for holiday travel ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. By Thursday, however, most of the immediate issues plaguing airlines had subsided as the climate settled itself, although pilots and air traffic controllers—already dealing with staffing shortages—remain wary of the potential for more inclement weather over the well-booked holiday period. And one still-struggling company has more to worry about here than anyone else: United Airlines.

Even in the thick of sector-wide chaos, United passengers had more to complain about than did their fellow travelers. As CNN Business noted on Monday, some of the airports most affected by weather problems that crisis-plagued day—about 11,000 trips delayed or canceled, but who’s counting?—are either major hubs or connectors for United, including Newark Liberty International Airport and New York’s LaGuardia. As such, a full 10 percent of its flights were canceled that day, and over 25 percent of its planned flights were nixed on Tuesday, even as the overall number of flights disrupted within the United States decreased. Indeed, as other airlines continued to find some relief on Wednesday, United went into “all hands on deck” mode to emerge from the muck and prep for the impending Independence Day schedule. Going into Thursday, United was still an outlier in cancellations, per CNN Business: 13 percent of its trips were scythed as of Thursday morning, while other airlines have seen just 2 percent or fewer.

Why United? Yes, part of it is absolutely the weather thing, as with other airlines. For United, weather problems were accentuated by its location: Its hubs in Chicago, Denver, New York City, Newark, and the District of Columbia were especially wracked by the low-visibility smoke and rain pummeling the U.S. But the airline isn’t counting out other factors. In memos sent to employees on Monday and Tuesday, after weekend storms left 150,000 United passengers quite unhappy, company CEO Scott Kirby laid the blame with the Federal Aviation Administration, the government regulator charged with overseeing the friendly skies. “The FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” Kirby wrote, mentioning that the agency sharply curtailed flight arrival and departure rates at Newark—a side effect, as he characterized it, “of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA.” United’s chief did not claim that the FAA bore sole responsibility for the disorder, but he did insist that it had neglected to solve long-stagnant agency issues, of the type that also helped fuel rampant flight trouble last summer.

Certainly, it’s not uncommon for business executives (fairly or unfairly) to blame federal regulators for making things harder. United leaders lashed out at the FAA last summer too, blaming the company’s transport issues on insufficient air traffic control capacity. That time, the administration shot back by citing “multiple overlapping factors” that plagued airlines throughout 2022—including (gasp!) inclement weather—and pointing out that air traffic systems worked just fine during the July 4 holiday, even as carriers canceled more than 1,000 flights all on their own. (United may still be smarting from this retort, as well as the $1.15 million fine the FAA proposed in February over the company’s use of planes that skipped a fire-safety check.) Similarly, this week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed the finger back at United. “I want to be very clear, air traffic control issues are not the number one issue causing cancellations and delays,” he said. “They’re not even the number two issue. All the data, including industry’s own data, is very clear on that.”

While Kirby and Buttigieg might enjoy playing the blame game, the responsibility here is shared. As ABC News explained, the weekend’s flight disarray kicked off thanks in part to an FAA computer failure at a D.C. control center, forcing the administration to “pause” all flights to district airports. Faulty agency tech was behind other flying disasters this year, like the January FAA computer outage that almost caused a disastrous collision at New York’s JFK Airport. As Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of the Air Current, told my colleague Lizzie O’Leary earlier this year, the FAA’s focus on developing “next-generation air mobility systems”—think Jetsons-style flying taxis—may have led the agency to neglect urgent fixes to its currently operational tech. And yes, the FAA is way understaffed: As the National Air Traffic Controllers Association president testified to Congress in March, the number of federally certified controllers has shrunk by 10 percent over the past decade, leaving urgent gaps as travel demand resurges. The Biden administration has delegated money from Congress’ infrastructure and climate bills to help improve air-control capacity and airport tech, but the president’s proposed budget items to beef up FAA labor were effectively defanged by the debt ceiling negotiations. Anyhow, even if the FAA were suddenly blessed with a hiring surge, it would take years to train those folks and get air-traffic networks back to pre-pandemic functionality.

The government isn’t the only one with labor problems. The Association of Flight Attendants has blamed United for failing to properly schedule attendant shifts and leaving a huge backlog of workers on hold. United’s pilots union—which has been bargaining a contract renewal for years and voted earlier this month to authorize a strike vote—is also pointing fingers at the C-suite, blaming the ongoing problems on “poor planning by United Airlines executives” who are “dragging [their] feet on taking any proactive measures to mitigate further delays, including on settling a new contract.” The head of the pilots union reiterated this point to CNN Business, telling the outlet, “United’s travel disruptions this week stem from one source: company senior management’s inadequate planning and insufficient investment in the airline infrastructure.” Further, both the unions note, United had long been aware of potential issues that could arise again this summer and did little to nothing to mitigate them, whether by resolving labor disputes or updating its communication systems for organizing staff operations and handling emergencies. Despite all this, United went into the summer planning a schedule 25 percent larger than last summer’s. In a desperate attempt to survive the next few days of a packed schedule, the company is now offering flight attendants three times their normal pay to work extra flights.

With such a multilayered mess on hand, can United flyers trust the company when it says it’s “on track” to settle things in time for a record-breaking holiday travel period, with even more eager passengers ready to board? Well, maybe they should retain some suspicion: The Northeast and East Coast, sites of the hubs that have pained United so much, are expected to get even more storms lasting through Saturday. And much of the U.S. will have to keep dealing with smoke from Canada’s wildfires for months. The Department of Transportation does have a new tool to help passengers understand what they’re owed if their flights are canceled or delayed—but there’s a big gap between knowing what you’re owed and getting it, if the horrifically long lines of abandoned passengers tell us anything.

Are we doomed to these flight-cancellation cycles every summer? Well, ample travel disruptions are in our future no matter what, thanks to increasingly frequent extreme-weather events fueled by climate change; the government’s efforts to lower the airline industry’s carbon footprint can only do so much. Meanwhile, the FAA needs more well-trained and certified traffic controllers, airline union disputes need to be resolved, and airline workers need more support from their management. Until all those issues are solved, fewer and fewer of our flights will end up taking flight.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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