Summer flight schedules are going to be too much for the air traffic controllers we have, according to United Airlines.

There are approximately 14,000 air traffic controllers in the U.S., almost all working for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). On average, they collectively handle 45,000 flights a day, with thousands of aircraft in the sky at once, any given minute. It’s a stressful job, and only about half of those who begin training for it wind up qualified.

Training happens in the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. Successful trainees earn a pittance their first few years, and will have little say in where they live or work until they’ve built up seniority. That alone is a harsh filter on the number of applicants, let alone the difficulty of the job. Also, this system of hiring and training was harshly impacted by the pandemic. The FAA says that they are not having any widespread staffing issues, but they also acknowledge that several centers are already struggling to have enough staff to cover summer flight schedules.

In a memo from United’s chief operating officer to his staff, the COO says that until the FAA addresses “obvious” shortages of air traffic controllers, they expect the pattern of delays and cancellations to continue through the entire summer.

The memo singles out New York and Florida as being most impacted by shortages. For instance, over the holiday weekend for the 4th of July, more than 1,800 flights were canceled and 22,000 flights delayed, almost a quarter of those out of New York and Florida.

Travel Secretary Pete Buttigieg is on record saying that he disagrees with the stance of this memo. Buttigieg, who has been meeting with the heads of airlines to address the issue of delays, says that air traffic control is not involved in most delays and not at all in cancellation. He points instead at the airlines, such as the recent practice of pushing pilots into early retirement to remove the highest-earners from payroll before large wage-increases.

Photo: Shutterstock