By Editor-July 29th, 2023.
With ancient computers, a shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers. US air travel to the Caribbean could continue to be aggravating for passengers this summer and into the prime tourism season when snowbirds fly south from the US and Canada to soak up the sun on Caribbean beaches.
JetBlue recently addressed the delays affecting its flights to and from the Dominican Republic, attributing them to a combination of factors.
The airline cited a shortage of air traffic controller personnel from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a significant challenge, particularly in the Northeastern region of the United States, which impacts their entire network.
Moreover, they emphasized that severe and uncontrollable summer weather further exacerbated the situation.
A spokesperson for JetBlue explained that the current FAA staffing shortage has led to more restrictive and prolonged ground delay programs compared to previous summers. As a result, most airlines, including JetBlue, have had to reduce their flights in the Northeast at the FAA’s request to cope with the situation.
The airline acknowledged that the past two months have been particularly challenging due to 25 days of severe weather in June and July. These weather conditions have made it difficult for them to maintain their schedule and operate flights on time, affecting all flights, including those to the Dominican Republic, as well as flights of other airlines on the East Coast.
One of the most pressing issues is a shortage of air traffic controllers – who handle the crucial task of guiding aircraft between and around airports – with a shortfall of about 3,000, according to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. As a result, the FAA asked airlines to reduce summer flights in the New York metropolitan area, where a key radar facility is only 54% staffed.
“Chronically low staffing has been a problem for a while,” says Paul Rinaldi, a former air traffic controller and vice president of the Global Air Traffic Controller Alliance. “We stopped training during Covid, and a lot of people retired. This does have a negative impact on the volume of traffic.”
The agency’s target is to hire 1,500 new controllers by the end of the year. “I applaud them for actually hiring,” Rinaldi says, though he points out that the number falls short of the FAA’s annual limit of 1,800 new hires. The plan is to hire in such numbers in 2024, bringing the total for the next two years to 3,300.
Hiring air traffic controllers is a laborious process that requires months of training and then up to three years of on-the-job experience before certification — a path that many applicants do not complete, according to Rinaldi.
And then there’s the issue of age: In the US, air traffic controllers are required to retire at the age of 56, and the FAA won’t hire anyone older than age 31, because they want candidates to have at least a 25-year career path.
“We have 1,200 fewer air traffic controllers today than we had 10 years ago,” says Freeman. “That’s not going to cut it. So we have to make an investment in people.”
As a result, US domestic airline capacity is still down 10 percent compared to pre-pandemic rates, the outlet said, citing the aviation analytics firm Cirium.
The dip makes it harder to find new seats for passengers whose initial flights have been cancelled, which thousands of disgruntled travelers have already discovered.
Sources: CNN, Dominican Today, JetBlue.