The airlines want to blame the FAA for flight problems

DALLAS — Airlines under investigation over widespread flight disruptions are renewing their criticism of the government agency that manages the country’s airspace, saying the Federal Aviation Administration’s understaffing is “crippling” traffic along the East Coast.

Airlines for America, which represents the largest US airlines, said Friday it wanted to know the FAA’s staffing schedules for the July 4 holiday weekend “so that we can plan accordingly.”

The industry group’s comments could serve as a precautionary defense should airlines suffer thousands of canceled and delayed flights again over the bank holiday weekend, when travel is expected to hit new pandemic-era highs.

“The industry is actively and rapidly doing everything it can to create a positive customer experience, as it is in an airline’s intrinsic interest to keep customers happy so they return for future business,” Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group, said in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

According to Calio, airlines have canceled 15% of flights originally scheduled for June through August to make remaining flights more reliable, they are hiring and training more pilots and customer service agents, and giving passengers more flexibility to change travel plans.

Calio said air travel is often disrupted “for many hours” because inclement weather causes the FAA to issue delays.

“However, we also observed the FAA [air traffic control] Staffing issues have resulted in traffic restrictions under blue sky conditions,” he added.

The FAA fired back, citing taxpayer money airlines received after the pandemic devastated air travel.

“People, when they buy an airline ticket, expect to get to their destination safely, efficiently, reliably and affordably,” the FAA said in a statement. “After receiving $54 billion in pandemic aid to save airlines from mass layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve their expectations met.”

The FAA said it added air traffic controllers in high-traffic areas and alternate routes to keep planes moving.

The comments from the head of the Airline Trade Group came a week after Buttigieg called airline executives to a virtual meeting and threatened to penalize airlines that fail to meet consumer protection standards set by his department, which includes the FAA.

Buttigieg said he called the meeting after being alerted to the high number of canceled flights around Memorial Day — more than 2,700 in five days, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Thunderstorms can quickly disrupt summer air travel, but airlines have also acknowledged staff shortages — they’re hiring at a rapid rate to replace tens of thousands of workers the airlines paid to lay off when travel collapsed in 2020. Pilot union leaders say their groups are being pushed to the limit and more and more pilots are reporting fatigue.

The FAA has admitted it too is understaffed, particularly at a key air traffic control center in Florida.

Calio said the facility near Jacksonville, Fla., was understaffed 27 of the past 30 days, “crippling all East Coast traffic flow.”

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