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The Air Traffic Controller Shortage: When Will It Improve? How Can You Prepare? | Frommer's ersin ergin / Shutterstock

The Air Traffic Controller Shortage: When Will It Improve? How Can You Prepare?

A shortage of air traffic controllers may be contributing to flight disruptions at U.S. airports. How—and how long—will your travels be affected? 

The summer travel season started with a lot of hope that air travel headaches might be behind us.

Beginning with a smooth-sailing Memorial Day weekend, flight cancellations through much of June dropped to rates far better than during last summer’s chaotic stretches, according to data from flight-tracking site FlightAware.

It appears, though, that any celebration might have been premature.

Fresh waves of mass cancellations and delays in recent weeks have reignited passenger frustration at a time U.S. airports have seen some of their busiest days—not just since the start of the pandemic, but ever.

The problems have also drawn attention to lagging staffing at the nation’s air traffic control facilities, which are tasked with managing the flow of planes and untangling traffic messes created when bad weather strikes.

Once again, travelers are left wondering when things will get better and whether there’s anything passengers can do to minimize disruptions in the meantime.

A promising start fades 

After U.S.-based airlines saw just 1% of flights canceled between Memorial Day weekend and June 24, FlightAware data shows those same carriers, altogether, have canceled more than 3% of flights since—a rate that’s worse than the dismal month of June 2022.

Those cancellations come on top of nearly 19,000 delayed flights—close to 29% of all departures—with tardy planes taking off an average 63 minutes behind schedule.

United Airlines alone has accounted for more than a quarter of U.S. carriers’ cancellations in recent weeks, an analysis by Frommer’s revealed. 

Why the apparent regression?

There are several theories, and which one you’ll hear depends to some degree on whom you ask.

A shortage of air traffic controllers

Traveling over the busy Independence Day weekend, you could hear the exasperation from pilots who had flown in and out of New York during the recent chaos.

“Air traffic control’s been sticking it to us,” a captain with a major U.S. airline quipped to me as we deplaned.

That’s a similar sentiment to the one expressed by United CEO Scott Kirby, who said the Federal Aviation Administration “failed” the carrier in the midst of a multiday disruption at the end of June.

Kirby argued that the problems were “almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA.”

In a subsequent letter to United employees, Kirby cited the “severe restrictions” imposed by the FAA on the airline’s key NYC-area hub at Newark Liberty International Airport. Kirby pointed to a combination of bad weather and air traffic control staffing challenges at the heavily congested airport.

Kirby also did acknowledge United’s need for improved crew scheduling systems.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has spoken about the shortage of air traffic controllers, too.

“There is a substantial gap between where we are today and where I want us to be in terms of staffing,” Buttigieg said of the current air traffic control landscape during a July 14 interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box.

In fact, a government watchdog’s recent report noted that more than three quarters of FAA air traffic control facilities are understaffed—a product, in part, of a pandemic training backlog.

The problem is most severe at the agency’s critical New York facility, which has barely half the number of controllers it should despite providing support for some of the world’s most congested airspace.

“There is a problem with controller staffing. There is no doubt … and it does impact some of their [controllers’] flexibility,” said longtime air traffic controller Michael McCormick, who once managed the FAA’s New York facility and now serves on the faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But McCormick believes the problems have been made far worse by a recent stretch of foul summer weather unlike anything he can recall in his three-decade career of managing air traffic.

The severe complications of severe weather

“When you have days upon days of thunderstorms that are occurring, it’s very much a challenge for the air traffic system,” McCormick said, noting that storms can effectively “shut down” airports, forcing controllers to reroute planes and sort through traffic jams created on taxiways and in the air.

Sure enough, a quick check of the FAA’s national airspace page during the writing of this story showed storm-induced ground stops or delays at all three major New York airports, with additional disruptions in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. 

(Screenshot of the Federal Aviation Administration's national airspace status page)

“I believe this is all part of what’s coming with climate change,” McCormick said. “We’re entering an era where we’re going to see more and more of this in the summer.”

For the FAA, dealing with these challenges means stepping up its hiring target for air traffic controllers, among other modernization efforts the agency hopes to make, pending congressional funding for the final version of an FAA reauthorization bill. So far the House has passed its version of the bill; the Senate goes next.

Still, air traffic controller training lasts at least 3 years. Clearly, as Buttigieg put it in the CNBC interview, “We won’t fix [the staffing shortage] overnight.”

That means passengers may want to take extra steps to prepare for air travel this summer and into the near future.

How can passengers prepare?

Downloading your airline’s app can provide an easy avenue to rebook when your flight is disrupted. You can also use the app to anticipate trouble ahead of time by tracking your incoming plane; if it’s delayed, there’s a good chance you will be, too.

If something does go wrong, reaching out to your airline’s customer service via web chat or social media channels may be faster than enduring long lines in person or hourslong waits on the phone. Here are some more tips for cutting down long phone waits.

What about a proactive step you can take from the outset? As Frommer’s has previously pointed out, booking the first flight of the day is among the best ways to skirt most thunderstorms and avoid the worst disruptions.

“The later the flight is, and the later your connecting flight is,” McCormick said, “the greater likelihood is that it’s going to be impacted by thunderstorms.”

And if you’ve ever considered a career in air traffic control, there’s never been a better time to get started.