More flights are scheduled in the U.S. than air traffic control can handle, say authorities

The U.S. aviation system is expected to "remain challenged this summer and beyond," and the Federal Aviation Administration needs more air traffic control staff, a senior United Airlines executive said on Wednesday, echoing problems in Canada and Europe.

Rebounding industry faces mounting flight cancellations amid rising demand across U.S., Canada and Europe

United Airlines aircraft are shown at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday in Newark, N.J. According to Reuters, United's chief operations officer sees more turbulence ahead for the airline industry. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

The U.S. aviation system is expected to "remain challenged this summer and beyond," and its federal regulator needs more air traffic control staff, a senior United Airlines executive said on Wednesday, echoing problems in Canada and Europe.

Travellers are already facing a tough summer with mounting flight cancellations amid rising demand as the industry tries to rebuild staff levels after thousands of workers left during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The reality is that there are just more flights scheduled industry-wide than the [air traffic control] staffing system can handle," United's chief operations officer, Jon Roitman, said in a message to staff seen by Reuters.

"Until that is resolved, we expect the U.S. aviation system will remain challenged this summer and beyond."

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) responded, saying on Sunday and the holiday Monday, "there were no FAA staffing-related delays at all, yet airlines still canceled over 1,100 flights, a quarter of which were United Airlines flights."

The agency said it "will continue to meet our responsibility to hold airlines accountable, while standing ready to collaborate where appropriate so that Americans can confidently expect safe, reliable, and affordable service whenever they purchase an airline ticket."

A United Airlines plane sits near the terminal of the Ottawa International Airport in 2021. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who met June 16 with airline CEOs on summer travel issues, told CNBC on Tuesday that "air traffic control staffing issues do not explain the majority of delays and cancellations we've been seeing."

He cited as a key factor in flight issues the decision of airlines to push many pilots into early retirement despite $54 billion in COVID bailout funds.

European airlines hit by labour unrest

In Europe, strikes and staff shortages are forcing airlines to cancel thousands of flights and causing hours-long lineups at major airports, dashing hopes of a sizzling first summer after coronavirus lockdowns.

Paris airport workers will stage another walkout at the French capital's main international hub from July 8-10 to press their demand for a net monthly salary increase of 300 euro ($313.74 US).

WATCH | Canadian airlines among worst for delays, data shows: 

Canadian airlines among worst performers for delays, recent data shows

3 months ago
Duration 1:48
Canada's two major airlines have had the poorest on-time performance of the 10 biggest North American airlines so far this summer, recent data shows. However, some experts say U.S. airlines experienced delays and disruptions last year due to a surge in demand for travel, and now, it’s Canada's turn.

Staff at an aviation fuel services firm at London's Heathrow Airport voted to carry out a strike over pay, the Unite union  said on Tuesday, with an initial 72-hour strike set to begin July 21.

Heathrow-based British Airways staff also plan to strike after the airline failed to roll back a 10 per cent pay cut imposed  during the pandemic, with the walkout expected to take place during the peak summer holiday period. On Tuesday, British Airways said it would reduce its April to October schedule by 11 per cent.

Several airlines have slashed their summer capacity to cope with the staff shortages, including thousands of cancellations by Lufthansa, easyJet and Air Canada.

Similar flight cuts and labour disputes have hit airlines in Spain, Portugal and other European countries. In Canada, experts say flight delays, cancellations and long lineups that have plagued airports in recent weeks are the result of labour shortages throughout the airline industry.

U.S. flight cuts

U.S. airlines have cut about 15 per cent of planned summer flights, an airline trade group said last month, while United Airlines has temporarily halted 12 per cent of departures from its Newark, N.J., hub alone because of congestion.

Over the four-day July 4 holiday weekend, 8.8 million passengers were screened by U.S. Transportation Security Agency checkpoints, topping 2020 and 2021, but about 12 per cent lower than 2019 levels.

Roitman said United performed better than major rivals over the holiday weekend but that "we still have some work to do to meet standards of reliability and operational performance."

WATCH | Widespread labour problems making airport chaos worse

Widespread labour issues making airport chaos worse, experts say

3 months ago
Duration 2:47
Experts say flight delays, cancellations and long lineups that have plagued Canadian airports in recent weeks are the result of labour shortages throughout the airline industry.

He added, "Yes, weather and air traffic constraints impacted the entire industry, but we've built a culture of 'no excuses' and we clearly have room to improve."

Last month, an airline industry trade group said the FAA must ensure adequate air traffic control staffing to avoid further summer travel disruptions, saying a key Florida ATC centre had been "understaffed for 27 of the last 30 days, which is crippling to the entire East Coast traffic flows."

With files from CBC News