As travelers head to the airport for the holiday weekend, they can look forward to meeting many, many fellow travelers — Denver International Airport expects a 9.4% boost from last Memorial Day.
Perhaps less welcome are the chance of delays and cancellations due to weather, technical issues and circumstances both within and outside of airlines’ control are inevitable.
But there’s something newish to watch for: Delays attributed to a shortage of air traffic controllers.
On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration “briefly paused departures from certain airports to Denver International Airport” and cited “controller staffing” as the cause, according to an FAA statement. Only arrivals to DIA were affected. Normal operations resumed at 9 a.m., after about an hour.
While non-weather-related ground delays are less frequent, the air controller staffing situation could end up impacting summer travel. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said this week that the FAA is still trying to catch up after a long pause on hiring and training during the pandemic.
“COVID blew a hole in our training pipeline, which we’re still working to recover from although we’ve made great progress,” Buttigieg said Tuesday at a news conference.
In the first year of the pandemic, the FAA said it shut down its training academy for four months and paused training elsewhere for eight months because of COVID-19 safety precautions. That left a large gap in hiring and training new air traffic controllers and it’s one that appears to be falling further behind.
According to Carmen Reale, a retired air traffic controller and now adjunct professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, it can take nine months to four years to get back on track because not only must new employees be trained, but trainers need to be trained.
“There’s a big gap between the ones that are fully qualified and those who can only work in certain positions. And because of that, a trainee that’s qualified in one or two positions, you’re kind of stuck there because there’s not enough other controllers to train you,” said Reale, who teaches prospective student pilots about the air traffic control system. “It’s just something we have to live with until we get more new controllers that are qualified.”
The federal Air Traffic Organization plans to hire 1,500 air controllers this year and another 1,800 next year. But in a May 5 letter to Congress, FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen said proposed Congressional spending cuts to the agency’s budget “would wreak havoc on summer air travel.”
“Thousands of FAA employees would be furloughed from their safety duties, and the replacement of the computer backbone that transfers data between air traffic facilities would be unacceptably delayed. Additionally, these cuts would hobble much-needed air traffic modernization work and stop the transfer to a new (notification) system,” Nolen said in the letter.
The current FAA funding through reauthorization by Congress is set to expire Oct. 1.
A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said the labor union had no comment on the situation.
The current shortage has been in the making for the past seven to eight years, said Michael McCormick, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the nation’s top schools for aviation and aerospace. He said the pandemic exacerbated the shortage but there have also been past “government shutdowns, sequestration and lapses in FAA authorization.”
“Somebody who didn’t get hired five years ago is impacting the staffing levels today,” McCormick said. “When you add on top of that the pandemic, for an extended period of time — and probably the longest period of time in modern air traffic history — they had to suspend hiring and training. So that meant in 2020 and into 2021, there was no hiring of air traffic controllers. That left a shortfall in certified air traffic controllers across the country.”
The FAA takes applications for potential hires each year. The 2023 window has closed but interested job seekers can sign up to be notified when the next round starts at faa.gov/be-atc. Air traffic control specialists make an annual median wage of $127,805, according to the FAA.
The hiring process takes about one year while training and getting certified can be two to four years, McCormick said.
The FAA didn’t just put hiring in turbo mode, he added. The agency also allowed some airlines serving New York City-area airports to reduce their schedules by 10% for the rest of the summer but still retain the arrival and departure slots after the peak summer travel season. That means larger plane sizes and fewer flight options for consumers.
“By bringing traffic demand down by 10%, the FAA is planning to have the ability to handle the reduced demand with the reduced staffing levels,” McCormick said. “That’s certainly better than having cancellations of flights. It’s also better for the airlines in that they can increase … their yield, or the amount of money they make on each individual flight.”
United Airlines, which has a hub in Denver, is taking the FAA up on its offer and reducing the daily frequency of its flights to the Newark, LaGuardia and Washington Reagan airports, said Russell Carlton, a spokesman for the airline.
“In many cases, we’ll replace the frequencies with larger aircraft to minimize the disruption to our customers’ travel plans,” he said in an email. “In fact, even taking into account the small reductions, United will fly 10% more seats out of these airports than we did in summer 2019.”
Airlines would return to their past schedules after the summer but there is an impact on travelers, McCormick said.
“The downside for the passengers is they’re going to have less flights and therefore, less flexibility in planning their travel,” he said. “This is a short-term fix to a longer term problem. A longer term solution is going to be hiring and training air traffic controllers.”
What to expect at DIA
Hopefully this weekend won’t be a repeat of last Memorial Day. Last year, hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed at airports nationwide due to bad weather but also “air traffic control actions,” reported The Associated Press. Other factors blamed were pilot shortages and vendor staffing.
So far, air controller staffing and ground delays have not impacted the Denver airport that much, said Jose Salas, a DIA spokesman.
“Delays can be unexpected and occur for a variety of reasons including aircraft maintenance, weather, and in this case staffing,” Salas said in an email. “When delays occur, it is our role as an airport to support our passengers and help maintain efficient operations through security checkpoints, the airfield and customs.”
He said that DIA expects 400,000 passengers to head through the airport’s TSA checkpoints between Thursday and Tuesday, with Thursday being the busiest. That’s higher than last year.
“Our biggest tip for passengers this holiday is to check their flight status with their airline in advance. It’s always better to see your flight is delayed before heading to DEN,” Salas said.
He also recommends checking the airport’s security check wait times at ifly.com/denver-international-airport/wait-times. And if you need to park, check real-time parking availability at flydenver.com/parking_transit/parking.
Travel tips for summer airline travel:
- Book the first flight of the day to avoid delays and cancellations of earlier flights.
- Book Saturday nights or Sunday mornings, when there’s usually fewer scheduled flights and less chance of long waits at security.
- Sunday and late night travel have better chances of a full air traffic control crew because they’re paid a premium for those shifts, said Reale, the retired air traffic controller.
- Arrive at least two hours before boarding time for domestic flights and three hours for international flights.
- Check in online ahead of time and confirm the flight is on time.
- At Denver International Airport:
- Check real-time parking availability at flydenver.com/parking_transit/parking.
- Check real-time TSA security wait times and identify shortest lines at FlyDenver.com.
- Call airport customer service at 720-730-IFLY (4359) or text 720-902-9351, or click the “Chat” button on FlyDenver.com to connect with a DIA agent between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily.
- At Colorado Springs Airport:
- Arrive 90 minutes before departure on busier days, like a holiday weekend.
- Check the TSA guidelines to avoid delays, and backing up the line