With an average of 45,000 flights per day, managing air traffic in the United States is one of the most stressful jobs in the country. Due to application and training requirements, air traffic controllers also can’t be easily replaced. One of the most pivotal moments in the last half-century of American history was when President Ronald Reagan dismissed over 11,000 air traffic controllers striking for better pay and working conditions in 1981. Besides setting back the collective bargaining rights of the working class, the mass firing created a staff shortage that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) couldn’t fully resolve for a decade. Now, the FAA seems to be dealing with another controller shortage provoked by the pandemic.
On Monday, the FAA warned passengers at New York City area’s three major commercial airports that they could see delays up to two hours long caused by air traffic control staffing issues. John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports serve 70 million passengers per year, a factor in making the airspace over the New York City metropolitan area the most congested in the country. According to flight tracking website FlightAware, over 20 percent of flights were delayed at each airport on Monday.
This isn’t just a singular instance. Airlines in the United States have stated that the shortage of air traffic controllers has impacted tens of thousands of flights over the summer. The FAA is trying to fill positions but seemingly can’t do so at a fast enough rate. Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen told Reuters that the agency was on pace to hire 1,000 air traffic controllers by the end of the year. The agency has 1,500 open positions to fill.
The FAA has also taken measures to reduce the number of flights as airlines are also dealing with staffing shortages. Last week, the agency granted a waiver to Delta, allowing the airline to operate below the minimum airport slot requirements at JFK, LaGuardia, and Reagan National in Washington, D.C. Normally, carriers have to use their airport slots 80 percent of the time to retain them. On the other side of the Atlantic, London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol have placed caps on the number of departing passengers to compensate for their own airport staffing shortages. Recovery from the staff reductions has been turbulent, to say the least.