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The Biden administration blamed airlines for delays and cancellations but downplayed the FAA’s lack of staffing in air traffic control

By Gregory Wallace, CNN

(CNN) — While President Joe Biden’s administration publicly hammered airlines for flight delays and cancellations last summer, behind the scenes Federal Aviation Administration officials were well aware that their own agency also bore responsibility for disrupting thousands of flights, according to previously unreported internal FAA records

The FAA’s problem, according to records obtained by CNN, was its understaffing at a key air traffic control facility in northern Florida. That FAA facility was overwhelmed by the heavy traffic to Florida and the Caribbean, and it was slowing the flow of flights – causing delays and inconveniencing passengers – even on clear weather days.

“I don’t believe we have any excuse other than a straight up shortage of certified controllers in multiple areas,” read an email to Acting Administrator Billy Nolen, who had asked for an explanation about why there were delays on an otherwise blue-sky day. The email was sent by an official who now leads the agency’s air traffic control arm.

That previously unreported and blunt internal assessment is among nearly 1,000 pages of FAA internal records obtained by CNN through a public records request. The FAA’s shortfall contributed – by its own estimate – to thousands of flight disruptions, the emails indicate. As a whole, the communications show that while weather and the airlines were partly to blame, the FAA also knew of its own impact.

In its defense, the Transportation Department told CNN this week it “was very transparent and public about issues faced in Florida” last summer. The FAA pointed out that data analyzed by the airline industry show that air carriers were at fault for four times as many delays as the FAA.

Still, the situation was significant enough that the FAA ultimately replaced management of the facility, located in Jacksonville, Florida. “One of the changes made at Jacksonville was to bring in a new leadership team,” the FAA said in a statement to CNN this week. It did not elaborate on the specific reason nor specify which positions were replaced.

The problems arose during the pandemic, when international destinations closed and Americans flocked to Florida as a reachable, tropical escape.

In a seven-week period in May and June 2022, airlines operated more than 1.2 million flights nationwide, and 16 percent of those involved a Florida origin or destination, according to FlightAware tracking data.

The documents obtained by CNN show the FAA believed it was responsible for 4,622 delayed Florida flights during that period, or nearly 1 in 10 delays recorded there by FlightAware. By contrast, the air traffic control facility with the second-most shorthanded situations in that period – a Los Angeles-area facility – reported causing just one flight delay.

To be sure, the administration did acknowledge that the FAA was shorthanded in Florida while sharply criticizing airline industry shortcomings. But the FAA in a public statement last year downplayed internal staffing issues and focused the public’s attention on “airline issues,” weather, and high demand for travel.

“Let’s be very clear, the majority of the delays and the majority of the cancellations have not been caused by air traffic control staffing issues,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN in an interview last July.

Multiple airline executives raised concerns last summer. A United Airlines internal memo from July obtained by CNN said “there are just more flights scheduled industry wide than the ATC staffing system can handle,” noting New York and Florida in particular. (Later that month, United CEO Scott Kirby said h personally apologized to Buttigieg for that characterization.) The airline industry said it wanted more transparency from the FAA on its staffing plans.

A recent government analysis supports FAA’s assertion about the cause of the majority of flight delays. Transportation Department data analyzed by the Government Accountability Office showed air traffic control issues “did not cause the majority of flight disruptions nationwide” at that point.

But the report notes that airlines raised concerns about FAA understaffing, and that the FAA conceded “increasing air traffic control staffing, along with frequent communication with the industry, may help FAA manage Florida’s airspace.”

The Biden administration ultimately leveraged heavy pressure it put on airlines last summer to extract help for inconvenienced customers – even though some delayed flights were disrupted by government staffing shortages.

“Regardless of the cause of the delays or cancellations, the Department expects airlines to provide timely and responsive customer service during and after periods of flight disruptions,” Buttigieg instructed airline executives in an August letter.

Jacksonville in the spotlight

The Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center airspace is a large rectangle spanning the southeastern US from the Atlantic and Carolinas to the Florida panhandle and Gulf of Mexico. The center, known as ZJX, handles more than 2 million flights in a typical year and was one of the three busiest regional centers coming out of the pandemic. There are limited passageways through the airspace, and rocket launches, military flights, and severe storms all tax the limited controller staff.

“Jacksonville Center’s problem is staffing and airspace limitations,” said Paul Rinaldi, a consultant and retired air traffic controller who previously led the ATC employee union. “There was an anticipation that we wouldn’t be back to normal until 2024.”

The industry association representing major airlines told CNN that it wants to see the FAA make changes and more rapidly hire more controllers to fill the gap.

“We’re pleased that they’ve committed to doing the maximum number of hiring, although I wonder if it’s enough,” Sharon Pinkerton of Airlines for America told CNN.

As airlines built heavy flying schedules to Florida in the spring of 2022, an anonymous whistleblower raised internal concerns Jacksonville center couldn’t handle the increased workload, the FAA records obtained by CNN show. The complaint has not been reported before.

The March complaint itself was not included in the records reviewed by CNN, but an FAA summary of the complaint noted that it alleged the “traffic level has risen dramatically over the past several years while staffing levels have declined,” to the point that controllers were pressured to take overtime and “work six-day work weeks.”

The investigation didn’t find a bump in safety incidents. But the timing meant that the agency had just investigated the staffing levels when it gathered for a meeting with airline representatives in early May to discuss the growing demand in Florida. Among other things, the agency promised to increase staff at Jacksonville Center.

Just a few weeks later – Memorial Day of 2022 – thousands of Americans were stranded in the first mass-cancelation event of that summer. FlightAware reported airlines canceled or delayed nearly one-quarter of US flights. Heavily hit Delta Air Lines named “air traffic control” as one of the causes of its issues.

Buttigieg called on airline executives to present plans for preventing a repeat. In a virtual June meeting and a series of letters discussing the issue, airlines raised concerns about staffing at that critical radar facility in Jacksonville.

The FAA acknowledged in a public statement at the time a need for more controllers in Florida while firmly casting the issue as a problem with airlines. Tucked into that statement was a low-key acknowledgement that it was understaffed for the high demand and said it was “placing additional air traffic controllers at facilities in Florida,” including Jacksonville.

The statement ended with a definitive claim about the causes: “To reiterate, weather, airline issues and the demand for airspace in Florida are the major causes of travel issues in Florida.”

Days later, an airline again raised concerns about the Jacksonville staffing, and Nolen asked aides for an explanation.

Nolen was then just weeks into the FAA’s top job and airline officials reached out to aides to his boss – Buttigieg – to point out concerns with air traffic control, or ATC, short staffing.

“Can you provide some context,” he wrote in an email.

This triggered the June 25 reply about the “straight up shortage of certified controllers.”

“Unfortunately, there is no button to push or lever to pull to change this situation until the additional people we are assigning to the facility become certified, which is taking longer when trainers are calling in sick,” that email to Nolen from Tim Arel, now chief of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, continued.

“I will see if any weather, anywhere, is contributing, but believe this is a straight up ATC staffing issue today,” Arel wrote.

In June, Buttigieg summoned airline executives in hopes of preventing a repeat meltdown as airlines, airports and the controller union were raising concerns with the FAA about the staffing issues.

The FAA’s regional administrator covering Florida and neighboring states wrote in an internal email – also in the batch obtained by CNN – that “some of the FL airports seem to have me on speed dial.”

Airlines raised the concerns in the Buttigieg meeting, and again in a letter that followed. The industry group Airlines for America noted that “not every air traffic variable is within an airline’s control” and said “air traffic control (ATC) related issues were a factor in at least one-third of recent cancellations.”

A United Airlines executive told employees in a July memo that many of the delays ordered by air traffic controllers “are weather-related, but delays related to air traffic volume and staffing are also contributing.”

“For example, we estimate that over 50% of our delay minutes and 75% of our cancels in the past four months were because of FAA traffic management initiatives – those have been particularly acute in Newark and Florida,” United Chief Operating Officer Jon Roitman wrote.

The FAA at the time responded that United was improperly lumping together FAA staffing issues with uncontrollable weather interruptions.

The controller union said staffing had been declining for more than a decade and was not keeping up with the increasing demands. National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Rich Santa said in a July 2022 speech that Jacksonville “epitomizes the staffing issue across the country.” The union declined an interview with CNN for this story.

Ultimately, the Biden administration focused primarily on the role of airlines. Taxpayers had poured billions into paying airline employee salaries and funding corporate loans earlier in the pandemic so that airlines would be ready for the post-pandemic return of travel, but critics said the airlines had not made good.

The administration launched investigations of airlines for allegedly scheduling more flights than they could handle. It used public dissatisfaction with flight disruptions to pressure airlines into increased payouts for customers whose travel was disrupted. It rolled out and promoted pages on its website with information about what compensation airlines would provide in the case of disruptions.

“We always have the passenger’s back,” Buttigieg said in an August interview on CNN.

Bad signs for the summer ahead

The FAA is warning its staffing may produce delays this summer. The 2019 month-long government shutdown and pandemic threw off the FAA’s hiring pipeline. In the 2021 hiring cycle, the FAA hired only 500 controllers, the fewest in nearly a decade.

The latest figures released this spring indicate staffing at the Jacksonville facility is still 13% below FAA’s target level. And nearly 50 of the current head count are listed as “developmental,” meaning they are still in training.

The FAA revealed this spring that it needs airlines to cut flights in the busy New York area to address controller shortages. A key facility overseeing that region is only 54% staffed. Nationwide, air traffic control towers and centers are currently only 81% staffed – meaning one in five positions is vacant.

This summer, the FAA is taking a different tactic with the New York shortage. It proactively alerted airlines and the public to the issue, and also asked airlines to schedule fewer flights.

But airlines are finally seeing traffic rebound off the pandemic lows, and would prefer to operate full schedules.

“We’re very prepared for this summer. Most airlines are. Unfortunately, the FAA is not,” JetBlue Chief Operating Officer Joanna Geraghty said last month. “We’re frustrated. Our customers are frustrated.”

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