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The Air Travel System May Be Flying Toward Disaster
April 13, 2023

The Air Travel System May Be Flying Toward Disaster

Reading Time: 7 minutes

It Isn’t Just You: Air Travel Is Getting Worse, There’s still a way to right course., Why flying has gotten so bad.

On Jan. 13, an American Airlines jet headed for London mistakenly crossed the wrong runway at JFK airport in New York—putting it right in front of a Delta plane that was getting ready for takeoff. Air traffic controllers saw what happened and scrambled to order the Delta plane to abort takeoff and the American plane to stay put. Luckily, they did, and no one on either flight was hurt. But the two jets came within roughly 1,000 feet of each other—and in airplane terms, that’s pretty close.

This incident was just one of several recent close calls that have worried pilots, airlines, and federal regulators. Just two days before the JFK incident, a key Federal Aviation Administration computer system failed. There have been at least seven other incidents on U.S. runways and taxiways this year—planes coming too close to each other, planes clipping wings and tails on the ramp. Plus, there was the whole Southwest computer debacle at Christmas.

On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of the Air Current, about how our air travel system got so fragile. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: When did you start noticing problems in the air travel system?

Jon Ostrower: In October of 2021, there was a big cascade of thunderstorms that rolled across Florida, and it messed up Southwest Airlines. That was one of the first indications that their IT systems were not ready for major disruption. In Southwest’s network, about 40 percent of their airplanes touch Florida on any given day. The staff were exhausted, and in the pursuit of trying to run the schedule that they had, it was kind of a smaller-scale version of what happened in Christmas 2022. It was the first major warning sign that the system just was not ready to accommodate the operations that the schedulers wanted to throw into it.

After massive layoffs, early retirements, and furloughs in 2020, airlines are now hiring like crazy. United was running ads offering $10,000 signing bonuses for ground technicians. But it’s hard to make up for what was lost during the pandemic. One estimate I saw was that there’s a supply gap of pilots of about 18 percent. Does that feel right to you, that we basically have 18 percent fewer pilots than we should?

Let’s put it this way: You can’t fly a 2019 schedule unless you have a 2019 number of pilots, or airplanes, or folks at the gate, or handling baggage or maintenance. So the system’s capacity is ultimately limited. All of this is happening as the U.S. economy bounces back from COVID—people want to get back out traveling again. The U.S. economy itself at a GDP basis is larger than it was before COVID, and air travel demand and GDP are very closely tied. As the U.S.
economy comes back, the airlines just cannot accommodate that level of demand, including all of the pilots that need to get trained and retrained.

It’s really important to point out that there’s a really big difference between qualified and experienced, in terms of pilots. We had a massive loss of experience within the pilot corps—seasoned pilots who have done this day in and day out, for decades, are exiting the system. We had a whole host of new pilots who are qualified and trained but not as experienced.

It was really striking to me that Scott Kirby, the CEO of United, went on the company’s fairly recent earnings call and said, essentially, that the industry was not prepared for the current situation, that it was trying to operate on the whole like it was 2019, but it’s not.

He’s absolutely right. Even in the earliest parts of COVID, we were seeing the fact that you cannot get back to 2019 levels of operations and capacity unless you have 2019 infrastructure. That includes air traffic control, that includes folks on the ramp, that includes pilots, that includes airplanes—and every single point of the aviation ecosystem is strained in some way.

We talked about pilots, but they are one part of an incredibly complicated picture. What does the rest of the industry’s drop and surge look like?

There’s also the availability of airplanes. Boeing and Airbus both would like to deliver and produce more airplanes to deliver to airlines like United. United has something like 130 737s coming from Boeing this year. That’s what it says in their regulatory filings. Behind the scenes, everyone involved is like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ They’re not going to have the pilots, the planes aren’t going to be ready, they’re not going to be able to produce that many. The big bottleneck right now within the aircraft manufacturer sector is the availability of engines. They’re just not able to get the engines they need to deliver the airplanes and ramp up production in a meaningful enough way to deliver on the demand.

That might be a good thing, by the way. Cramming too many airplanes into a system that is having trouble with the ones that are already there is definitely something that should give everyone pause. A system has a way of slowing itself down, sometimes catastrophically, sometimes in more measured ways, where we just see a strain on the system.

The Southwest debacle around the holidays and then the notice to air missionsground stopin January underscored the antiquated technology that underpins a lot of the U.S. air travel system. How would you describe the technological universe around this system?

It’s really hard to change your tires on your car when you’re going 85 miles per hour down the highway. It’s not a system that changes easily and upgrades easily, because you can’t say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re taking off of flying from Wednesday to Friday because we need a new IT system, and everyone’s going to have to stay home.’ So they have to find a way to upgrade systems as they’re running. And there is a risk analysis that goes on, both in FAA and at the airlines, that says, ‘OK, if we upgrade this system midstream and we fall over in the process, that’s going to be disastrous. Is the system working now? OK, don’t mess with it.’

However, you hit a pandemic and any priorities that were in the system—whether it’s cabin upgrades or IT or whatever—get put on the back burner. If there was spending at an airline, it was done to preserve cash and allow the airline to just continue to breathe. A major IT upgrade to scheduling wasn’t a high priority in that moment, except when it is laid bare that that is an antiquated system. The fragility of the system, ultimately, is illustrated when it tries to get past its own capacity.

For 20 years now, the FAA has been engaged in something called the NextGen System, the idea of moving away from the radar that has controlled the air traffic system for a long time to something more like GPS. How would you describe what NextGen is and how that effort is going?

NextGen is the FAA’s long-term effort to take, effectively, a lot of the infrastructure that was put in place during the Cold War for aviation and move it forward. NextGen will allow for things like more aircraft flying, more precise, lower-carbon-emitting routes. A big piece of this is climate change, but it’s also capacity, about how many aircraft can you fit in the system. By using more precise technology, you can ultimately fit more aircraft into a given area safely. This has taken the better part of 20 years to unravel the system. But I think it’s important to understand that the national aerospace system should be something that is continuously improving.

This year the FAA is up for what’s known as reauthorization in Congress. It’s a five-year cycle when the agency is funded and most of the big players in aviation come together to figure out national priorities. It makes sense that updating the tech that the whole aviation ecosystem relies on should be at the top of the list, right?

We find ourselves at a point where the FAA, and also European regulators, have really leaned into the idea of next-generation air mobility systems. So electric flying taxis and regional air mobility, trying to have air taxis flying between midtown Manhattan and Newark, for example. A lot of us who are covering this on the outside are going, ‘Hold on. You’re going to put thousands of these vehicles into an aerospace system that is really having trouble keeping 737s and 767s from getting too close to each other?’

They are looking at 2024, 2025, 2026 for this. And that’s not a long time from now in the aviation world. So these are problems that are going to have to be solved now, and they’re going to have to be solved by slowing down. The FAA is going to have to be the traffic cop here, and it’s not going to make the airlines happy. But the reality is that the only way to get the stability and the resilience that I think people demand from their air traffic system is going to be slowing down.

Is the FAA reauthorization playing out on Capitol Hill happening in a vaguely functional way?

It’s too soon to tell. We obviously have a change of party running the House, and that does affect how things come together. It should be, in theory, a partisan-free exercise. It historically has not been a partisan-free exercise. If it can get messed up by the debates in Congress that have nothing to do with aviation, chances are it probably will.

The U.S. air travel system is incredibly safe. You might be annoyed, your flight might be canceled, but it is overall extremely safe. So I’m wondering how someone who is listening to this, who takes a couple of flights a year, should think about these issues?

The goal of any aviation system is to not have to worry about it. The flight becomes just the means to an end. The way travelers should think about it is that the system is ultimately having the immune response that’s necessary. There might be a fever, but right now we see the necessary steps being taken, which, first and foremost, is to slow down. It’s not popular and you might not get there on time, but arriving late is better than not arriving at all.


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