A Surge in Air Travel Has Regulators Worried About More Delays

(Photo Credit: Anete Lūsiņa/Unsplash)
(Photo Credit: Anete Lūsiņa/Unsplash)

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In case you haven’t noticed, airports are busy, maybe too busy.

The Airports Council International released its rankings of 2022’s busiest airports Wednesday, and while the world is returning to air travel normalcy, staff shortages have the Federal Aviation Administration asking airlines to flip the spoilers.

Expect Some Delays

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport led the way for the second year in a row, servicing nearly 94 million flyers last year. In a not-so-close second was Dallas Fort Worth with 73 million passengers, followed by Denver in third place and Chicago O’Hare in fourth. Half of the top 10 busiest airports were American. The other half included runways in India, Turkey, the UK, the UAE, and France. Altogether, there were roughly 7 billion global flight passengers last year. That’s up more than 50% from 2021 but still down about 26% from pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

Even so, air travel has bounced back strongly, especially in China, which only recently reopened for business and whose airports should reclaim top spots on next year’s list. But what about that scary-sounding pilot shortage we’ve been hearing so much about the past two years?

  • The shortfall stemmed from a combination of factors — older pilots cashing in on their retirements during the pandemic, airlines overscheduling and launching more routes than they could fill, numerous pilot strikes, and a slowdown in the military-to-commercial aviation pipeline.
  • However, the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilot union in the world, argues that is a “fictitious” narrative and that there is no shortage. Referencing FAA data, ALPA claims there are more than enough pilots to meet the demands of heavy air travel and that the real problem lies with profit-focused airline executives skirting safety standards to hire less-experienced fliers at lower pay.

Slow it down: Even if there are enough pilots, the FAA has officially recognized a concerning lack of air traffic controllers to keep them from crashing into the ground and each other. Last year, New York City area airports saw about 41,000 flight delays thanks to a dearth of tower staff, NBC reported. To reign in those setbacks, the FAA is asking airlines to cut at least 10% of their flights this summer. Thankfully, Delta, JetBlue, United, and American Airlines have all indicated they would take the FAA up on its suggestion.