It’s a time-honored tradition just like Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow or the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. Every year, travelers anxiously await the official start of summer, signified by the first major weather-induced meltdown at New York area airports. Congratulations, everyone. Summer has arrived!
Those of you in Denver are undoubtedly saying, “what? Summer has been here for weeks.” And it’s true that Denver has been absolutely hammered by some wild weather including hail, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and clouds of pot smoke. While this has disrupted Denver travel, that airport and airspace is far more resilient than those found in the fragile Northeast US.
Unlike Denver, the Northeast has had it really good lately. There was virtually no snow in New York City this winter while the West Coast was absolutely hammered. And summer storms have largely stayed away up until this past weekend when all hell broke loose. As if that wasn’t enough, storms made Tuesday an absolute mess as well. But it wasn’t just the storms that messed everything up.
Yes, Mother Nature’s work whipping up thunderstorms that seemed to sit over key airspace absolutely caused really ugly delays and cancellations. But there’s another culprit here, and it’s this suspicious person:
Don’t know who that is? That’s because this person is the permanent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator. And that person does not exist. Instead, we have moved on to the second acting administrator after the previous one left for the private sector. The FAA is responsible for air traffic control, and they have by all accounts been doing a pretty poor job of keeping these jobs fully staffed, let alone with people who have experience. They already warned that they were severely understaffed around New York City and asked airlines to reduce flying this summer. The airlines did that, but when the weather gets bad? It’s still ugly.
United CEO Scott Kirby wrote a scathing note about the situation since United’s Newark hub felt much of the pain. In particular, he points to Saturday where the weather wasn’t bad (it hit on Sunday) but Newark capacity was already reduced. I’ll just give you a snippet:
The FAA reduced the arrival rates [at Newark on Saturday] by 40% and the departure rates by 75%. That is almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA. It led to massive delays, cancellations, diversions, as well as crews and aircraft out of position. And that put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening.
That’s quite a cheery picture Scott paints there. But just how bad was it? I’m so glad you asked. I took a look at Anuvu operational performance data to show just how bad it got. I’ll start with the percentage of departing flights airlines ended up canceling around New York City for all airlines.
% of Departing Flights Completed by Airport
Look at JFK hanging in there. And indeed, the other stats show something similar. Here’s a look at arrivals within 14 minutes of schedule for all departures from these airports:
% of Departing Flights Completed Within 14 Minutes of Schedule by Airport
That is… very bad. Newark is by far the worst. On the worst of these days, it’s due to where the storms are sitting and winds. On Tuesday, there was a wall of weather to the west of the city which meant flights could take off but they’d have nowhere to go. Instead there were lengthy ground stops and ground delay programs which snarled traffic.
But on Saturday? For airlines to have had to cancel more than 10 percent of departures and operate fewer than 40 percent of flights on time on what Untied says was a relatively good weather day, well, that is where United gets so angry about the staffing/seniority issue.
For its part, the FAA didn’t really address this. In a statement provided to Reuters, the FAA said “We will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem.” Uh, ok, great. But meanwhile, when weather hits, air traffic control is not performing at 100 percent and that makes it a lot tougher to get through a weather event.
While all airlines with a big presence in New York sturggled this week, none has struggled more than United. United’s operation appears to have buckled under the constant barrage of weather and ATC issues. Just take a look at each hub over the last few days.
% of United Departing Flights Completed Within 14 Minutes of Schedule by Hub
As you can see, on Saturday the airline was able to really keep the terrible operation isolated to Newark, but by Sunday it had taken down Dulles and O’Hare. Monday saw continued deterioration and Tuesday with the fresh round of weather made things even worse with only Los Angeles seemingly able to run a functional operation.
As I write this, Wednesday appears to be stabilizing, at least. But when will the operation get back to normal? That remains to be seen.
One might just chalk this all up to the karma gods. After all, during United’s 4th quarter earnings call, Scott went on and on about how it avoided meltdowns because it had invested so heavily into running a different kind of operation with more buffer. United was different than other airlines… and maybe it is.
Maybe if another airline had the lion’s share of operations at Newark, it would have done far worse than United. But this week, United proved that no matter how well you prepare, anyone can have their operation torn to pieces. It just takes poorly-placed weather and an under-functioning air traffic control system. Next time, it’ll be someone else’s turn.