United Airlines is prioritizing improvements to crew technology, following a week its CEO described as “one of the most operationally challenging … in my entire career.” 

The airline also plans further changes or reductions to its schedule at Newark Liberty (EWR) International airport to provide better buffer.

Operational issues began as the summer season got off to a stormy start in the U.S. northeast over the weekend of June 24, with delays spilling into the following week. New York area airports—where Terminal Radar Approach Control facility N90 is staffed at 54%, according to a recent federal audit—were among the most impacted. Following several weather events, U.S. airlines had “recovered to a more typical cancellation/delay rate” by the morning of June 29, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, “with the exception of United.”

The following day, as passenger volumes ramped up ahead of the July 4 holiday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced a record screening of 2,883,595 travelers on June 30. Flight delays numbered 8,855 within, into, or out of the U.S. on that day, according to FlightAware, with United leading U.S. airlines for the highest rate of delayed flights at 45%—or 1,327 flights—with 8% of its flights canceled. Its delayed flights dipped to 36% on July 1, and 33% on July 2. 

Entangled in the disruptions alongside passengers were crewmembers who described an overwhelmed scheduling system. The union representing United’s flight attendants said it was running “with nearly half the number of schedulers on the job at an airline one fifth the size.” 

“United management’s failure to properly staff crew schedulers, the flight attendant support team, and more, has exacerbated these operational issues and left passengers and Flight Attendants waiting for answers for hours at a time,” said Ken Diaz, president of the United chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, on June 29. “The airline actually ‘lost’ crews in the system for days on end because there was such a significant breakdown in running the operation.”

Dealing another blow to crew morale was news on June 30 that CEO Scott Kirby had used a private aircraft to leave the New York area earlier in the week. Apologizing for the move and calling it “the wrong decision,” Kirby the next day in a message to staff entitled “Thank you and I’m proud of you” expressed gratitude, issued an explanation on how delays had cascaded, and offered next steps. 

“Airlines can plan for things like hurricanes, sub-zero temperatures and snowstorms, but United has never seen an extended limited operating environment like the one we saw this past week at Newark,” Kirby wrote. Pointing to “truly unprecedented severe weather” at EWR, he said “severe restrictions” on June 24-27 had reduced the total number of aircraft able to depart EWR by between 60-75% for an average 6-8 hours each day. 

“Airlines, including United, simply aren’t designed to have their largest hub have its capacity severely limited for four straight days and still operate successfully,” he wrote. 

Kirby described the delays as starting with severe thunderstorms compounded by air traffic controller (ATC) staffing shortages, and complicated by an inability to use Canadian airspace as an alternate route for weather-impacted EWR departures.

“Today, Canada’s air traffic control is short staffed too, so they’ve closed those routes,” said Kirby. “The reality is that EWR simply can’t function under thunderstorm conditions unless there are departure routes to the west and that’s one of the biggest takeaways that the FAA is diligently working on with us and Canada.” 

Following the storms, “the level of disruption we experienced left our aircraft and crews scattered around the country and out of position,” Kirby acknowledged. 

The United CEO then outlined five things the airline could improve upon, leading with crew technology. The long hold times noted by crews had occurred on systems that were “simply not designed for what we went through this past week,” said Kirby. Setting a goal of making its crew app “just as good as our customer facing app,” upgrades would allow for self-service, rather than necessitating large call volumes to crew scheduling teams.

“We’re committed to making that a top priority,” Kirby wrote. 

The remaining four items of improvement revolve around enhanced partnerships and communication with FAA and EWR, including on better balancing departures and arrivals at EWR, and amending its own schedule to allow for spare gates and buffer times. In addition, Kirby said United is working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to obtain more gates at EWR. FAA has also initiated some immediate measures for improvement, including bringing in more senior managers on weekends, and working with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to cover for any vacations or sick time, said Kirby. 

In his message to staff, Kirby said the airline was still monitoring several storms but described the operation on July 1 as “back on track.” 

High volumes of travelers are expected throughout the remainder of the U.S. holiday weekend, with nearly 10.7 million individuals screened by airport security from June 29-July 2, “setting travel records at airports across the country,” TSA said. An afternoon forecast provided by the FAA on July 3 noted weather was beginning to develop in the U.S. northeast region, which the agency said had the potential to impact New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.

Article source: https://airlines.einnews.com/article/643102616/agaXOg-RNzAb6ezm?ref=rss&ecode=vaZAu9rk30b8KC5H

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