United Airlines blames FAA for disruptions affecting 150,000 passengers

United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby told employees that a shortage of air traffic controllers affected about 150,000 passengers in recent days as the carrier struggles with canceled flights brought on by thunderstorms in the New York area.

In an email late Monday afternoon, Kirby took direct aim at the Federal Aviation Administration, saying short staffing left the agency unable to deal with the inclement weather.

“The FAA frankly failed us this weekend,” Kirby wrote.

After a relatively smooth start to the summer travel season, the surge in delayed and canceled flights – combined with Kirby’s email – set up a clash between one of the nation’s largest airlines and the government agency responsible for keeping the skies safe as the busy Fourth of July weekend approaches. It follows a report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general last week that found the agency had taken only limited steps to address shortages and repeated warnings by the air traffic controllers’ union that too few employees were available.

The FAA did not respond to questions about Kirby’s email but said in a statement, “We will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem.”

While Kirby took aim at the FAA, there are signs that at least some of the problems trace back to internal issues at United.

On Monday evening, the Association of Flight Attendants sent a memo to its United union members saying wait times for a crew-scheduling line had reached three hours. The union encouraged flight attendants approaching their maximum number of work hours to find their own accommodations.

“There is an absolute recognition by Union leadership and Inflight management that something must be done in order to permanently address these adverse situations resulting from irregular operations,” the memo said.

United canceled almost 600 flights Monday, nearly 20 percent of its schedule. The carrier had canceled about 450 flights as of late Tuesday afternoon.

The situation has echoes of the large-scale meltdown at Southwest Airlines over the Christmas holiday period, when crews were in the wrong locations as the carrier tried to match pilots, flight attendants and aircraft.

In his email to staff, Kirby said trouble began Saturday when the FAA reduced arrival and departure rates in the New York area. Continuing storms in the area made it harder for the airline to recover, he said.

“It led to massive delays, cancellations, diversions, as well as crews and aircraft out of position,” Kirby wrote. “And that put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening.”

United has blamed the FAA for flight issues in the past. In a memo to employees last July, United executive Jon Roitman estimated three-quarters of its cancellations during the Fourth of July holiday weekend stemmed from “FAA traffic management issues.” Kirby ultimately apologized to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, saying “the whole system is strained.”

Delta Air Lines also struggled Sunday and Monday, but as of Tuesday afternoon had canceled only 61 flights, as well as 125 flights at its regional subsidiary Endeavor Air. Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said the carrier expected to be fully operational by Wednesday.

“Delta teams have worked to safely stabilize after Sunday and Monday’s rounds of summer thunderstorms and ensuing air traffic control programs,” he said.

More storms Tuesday prompted a fresh round of ground stops at airports across the Northeast, including at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Reagan National, Newark International, Philadelphia International and LaGuardia airports.

The disruptions are the most serious since the beginning of the summer travel season and come as the FAA is forecasting an uptick in flights this week as the Fourth of July holiday approaches. The agency expects Thursday to be the busiest single day of the long holiday weekend, with 52,564 flights.

The Transportation Security Administration said it expected its busiest day Friday, when it projects it will screen nearly 2.8 million people. In 2019, the agency’s busiest screening day was Sunday, July 7, when it screened 2.79 million people.

Whether protections apply to passengers of canceled flights depends on who is to blame for the cancellations. The Department of Transportation has pressured airlines to guarantee more aid to stranded customers, including meal vouchers and overnight accommodations. Major carriers have agreed, but the pledges only apply when airlines themselves are responsible for the disruption.

Airlines generally are responsible for a the biggest share of delays and a growing number of cancellations, according to data they provide to the Transportation Department. FAA staffing issues account for a tiny share of delays reflected in federal data.

The FAA acknowledged in the spring that understaffing at a key facility responsible for coordinating traffic near the New York area’s three major airports could cause delays this summer. The agency sought to work with airlines to reduce their number of flights – while using larger aircraft that accommodate more passengers – in an attempt to avoid problems.

In its report earlier this month, the Transportation Department’s inspector general said the FAA did not have a plan to address a shortage of air traffic controllers across its system, “which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.”

Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the report reflected long-standing concerns of the union.

“FAA’s flawed staffing model and inconsistent hiring has resulted in new hires not keeping pace with attrition over the past decade,” he said in a statement. “The status quo is no longer sustainable.”

The agency suffered another blow Sunday when the discovery of an overheating power cable led to a pause on flights in the Washington region.

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation’s largest carriers, did not respond to a question about Kirby’s concerns. But said the inspector general’s audit released last week echoed some of the warnings the airline group has voiced for years.

It noted that in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee in February, Sharon Pinkerton, A4A’s senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, said it is clear the FAA is not capable of meeting existing demands on the national airspace system.

“Unfortunately, the FAA is on the precipice of being overwhelmed, if they are not already,” she told the committee.

The House and Senate are considering bills to fund the FAA for the next five years, while both proposals would seek to add air traffic controllers. The Senate bill calls for the establishment of a second air traffic controller academy, while the House bill would direct the FAA to train as many new controllers as possible.

Article source: https://airlines.einnews.com/article/641905785/kI2P0vRzyDp2C8Uv?ref=rss&ecode=vaZAu9rk30b8KC5H

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