Air traffic controllers shortage dents airlines’ post-lockdown recovery Delays and reduced schedules highlight structural problems that will not be easy to fix


The airline industry in Europe and the US has been experiencing significant delays and disruptions due to staffing shortages in air traffic control. These shortages, along with airspace closures in Europe, have led to a 37% increase in delayed flights on the continent over the past year, according to Eurocontrol, an air traffic management organization. In July, when travel demand is at its peak, air traffic control staffing and capacity issues were responsible for about half of the delays.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requested airlines to reduce flying in New York's crowded airspace in March due to staffing shortages in air traffic control. This has led to criticism from airline executives, with United Airlines CEO, Scott Kirby, pointing out disruptions at the airline's hub in New York. A report in June highlighted widespread staffing shortages, forcing controllers at some facilities to work mandatory overtime and six-day weeks to manage the shortfall.

These staffing and capacity issues have posed a challenge to the recovery of the airline industry from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite booming profits for airlines like British Airways owner IAG and Air France-KLM due to high ticket prices and strong demand for transatlantic travel, the costs incurred from air traffic control delays are significant. In Europe alone, delays cost airlines more than €800 million last year, according to Eurocontrol.

While the situation is not as severe as it was in 2022 when the industry as a whole faced staffing shortages, the combination of increasingly crowded airspace and the lengthy training process for air traffic controllers means that the problem is unlikely to be resolved quickly. This issue has been further exacerbated by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in the closure of a fifth of Europe's skies, forcing tens of thousands of flights to operate in a smaller area of airspace.

Several airline executives, including Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren, have expressed frustration with the traffic control problems. Bastian emphasized the need for a robust recruiting and hiring plan for air traffic controllers, similar to what the airlines had implemented during the pandemic.

Overall, the combination of staffing shortages and airspace closures in Europe, along with the impact of the Ukraine crisis, has led to significant delays and disruptions in the airline industry. Resolving these issues will require a comprehensive approach that addresses recruitment and training processes for air traffic controllers while also addressing the geopolitical challenges affecting airspace availability. 

Gatwick Airport in London, which is a major hub for easyJet, experienced significant flight cancellations last week, causing inconvenience for travelers. Labor unrest has further exacerbated the situation in some places. French air traffic controllers have undertaken walkouts, and Eurocontrol, an air traffic management organization, has warned of a possible strike at its Brussels headquarters in the next six months.

The shortage of air traffic controllers in Europe is estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 individuals. This shortage can be attributed to layoffs and recruitment freezes during the pandemic, which came after years of under-investment in the sector. Frédéric Deleau, the executive vice president for Europe at the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations, highlighted these factors.

In the United States, both airlines and the government-funded Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have been reluctant to invest in staffing and technology required to manage the increasingly congested airspace. This information is provided by industry analyst Seth Miller of aviation website PaxEx.Aero. Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet, acknowledged that while the industry is better prepared than last year, challenges still exist that are beyond the control of airlines and airports.

Training a new air traffic controller typically takes two to three years, and the potential retirement of existing controllers further adds strain to staffing levels, as warned by Deleau.

According to data from the FAA, weather conditions have been responsible for 70% of the delays in the United States this year. Staffing issues have accounted for less than 3% of delays, significantly lower than the 12% recorded during the same period last year. Nevertheless, a report from the inspector general's office of the Department of Transportation in June revealed that 85% of the busiest air traffic control centers and towers in the US are currently employing 85% or less of their targeted staffing levels.

In summary, London's Gatwick Airport, along with other airports, has faced flight cancellations due to staffing issues. The shortage of air traffic controllers in Europe and the US, as well as reluctance to invest in staffing and technology, has contributed to these challenges. The extensive duration of training for new controllers and potential retirements further strain the available staffing levels. Weather conditions have been a significant cause of delays in the US, while in Europe, labor unrest has also played a role. 

According to a report by the inspector-general, the number of fully certified air traffic controllers in the country decreased by 9% between 2012 and 2022. In May, the FAA submitted a workforce plan to Congress which indicated that there were 10,600 fully certified controllers and 3,100 trainees by October 2022.

To address the staffing shortage, the FAA plans to hire 1,500 controllers this year and an additional 1,800 in 2024. However, there is a disagreement between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union regarding the required number of controllers. The union, as part of a working group, stated that the FAA needs approximately 14,600 fully certified controllers, which is about 2,600 more than the agency's target level. 

Rich Santa, the president of Natca, criticized the FAA's "flawed staffing model," stating that the current situation is no longer sustainable. Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian, expressed the need for the US to prioritize investment in aviation infrastructure as a national priority. He acknowledged that both the FAA and air traffic controllers work hard but are understaffed and lacking adequate investment. Bastian emphasized that there is no quick solution to this problem. 

Seth Miller, an industry analyst, pointed out that airlines have historically attempted to operate an excessive number of flights and planes within the limitations of air traffic control. He stated that while blame may shift among parties involved on any given day, everyone shares responsibility for the current situation. Miller added that the current challenges should not come as a surprise given the circumstances.   

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