Jul 19, 2023 - Economy

The FAA wants to explain why your flight was delayed

Gif of an airplane with a cloud-like thought bubble feating an animated text-in-progress icon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amid much finger-pointing about who's to blame for recent air travel delays, federal aviation officials are doubling down on efforts to explain the cause of major day-to-day issues in real time.

Why it matters: While learning why your flight is delayed won't get you to Cabo or Cancun any faster, it can at least shed some light on the oft-misunderstood world of airspace management.

Driving the news: As stormy summer weather and other issues lead to significant air travel delays, the Federal Aviation Administration has been posting videos meant to explain what's causing trouble, featuring air traffic controllers speaking in layperson's terms, TV meteorologist-style.

  • Here's an example delving into "escape routes" used to get planes in and out of airports when storms are blocking the typical paths.
  • And here's another previewing potential issues with afternoon thunderstorms in the Chicago area.

What they're saying: "We've done a lot of work in partnership with the folks at the command center to pull back the curtain and show [travelers] what's happening on a given day, whether it's weather, the military using airspace, space launches or staffing," FAA assistant administrator for communications Matthew Lehner tells Axios, referring to the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Virginia.

  • "We've really tried to be transparent with the content and help people understand 'here's the challenge and here's how we've worked through it.'"
  • The command center is "the perfect place to go and get all the elements of the story about how the airspace is managed," adds FAA deputy assistant administrator Jeannie Shiffer.

The backstory: The videos were the brainchild of FAA Creative Services Division manager Allison LePage, who wrote scripts and trained air traffic controllers for on-camera appearances starting last year.

Between the lines: The FAA has been struggling with air traffic controller staffing — especially in the vital New York area — and airline leaders have accused it of mishandling foul weather delays and other issues.

  • United CEO Scott Kirby has been especially blunt in his criticisms of the agency, saying last month that it "failed" the airline.
  • However, he softened his stance following a brutal operational stretch for United caused in part by bad weather affecting Newark Liberty International Airport, one of its major hubs.

What's next: At least some airlines are rethinking their operations in light of this summer's storms.

  • United, for example, may reduce Newark service to minimize the impact of delays there on the rest of its daily operations (if a plane gets stuck in Jersey, that affects its next planned leg in California or Florida, for example).

The bottom line: Bad weather at major hubs will always muck up airline operations — and climate change is amplifying that threat.

  • But a little more transparency about delays and cancellations — and a reminder that each plane is just one of many in an incredibly busy and complex system — certainly can't hurt.

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