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Airline executives raise alarm that air traffic controller shortage will continue disrupting flights for years

The air traffic controller shortage will continue to cause travel disruptions not only next year, but for at least the next five years, airline industry executives said Tuesday.

”It will take five to seven years [of hiring] to break even if all goes well,” Airlines for America chief Nick Calio said at the Global Aerospace Summit held by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC.  “Do we need five to seven years of further disruption on a daily basis?  I don’t think so.”

Calio, whose organization represents the major airlines, said even if the Federal Aviation Administration hired the maximum number of controllers who can progress through its single certification academy, it is “not going to be enough” for a rapid recovery.

He proposed allowing universities with air traffic controller programs to provide the certification courses, as he said other countries do.

He said major US airlines would also encourage the Federal Aviation Administration to lower flight levels at major New York-area airports – the region where the FAA is most severely understaffed – again next summer.

In the spring, the FAA asked airlines to dial back summer flights by 10% at airports such as Newark, John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia. Last month, the FAA extended the policy into October.

Executive: Give us more heads up

JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said that more advance warning about the FAA’s plans would help the airline shift its resources to operate at other airports. He also said a reduction of 10% might not be enough.

Peter Ingram, CEO of Hawaiian Airlines, said better technology would improve air traffic controller services, but first the agency must “staff for the technology we have today.”

Hayes and United Airlines’ Scott Kirby both said the controller shortage is especially evident when airlines try to recover from weather disruptions.

The same weather that in the past we could have managed through now can cause hundreds of delays, or hundreds of even cancelations

Scott Kirby, United Airlines

“The same weather that in the past we could have managed through now can cause hundreds of delays, or hundreds of even cancelations,” Kirby said.

The FAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its staffing levels and the executives’ concerns.

Robert Isom, who runs American Airlines, said the system needs more than just the airlines dialing back flying.

“If you were pleased with this summer in terms of air transportation, it’s going to get a lot tougher, and if you weren’t pleased, it’s going to be a lot worse as we look forward.”

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