United and the FAA are arguing over blame for summer air traffic problems

WASHINGTON, July 6 (Reuters) – The US aviation system is expected to “remain challenged this summer and beyond” and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs more air traffic control personnel, a senior executive at United Airlines (UAL .O) next Wednesday.

The FAA responded to United Wednesday, saying on July 3 and 4, “There were no FAA personnel delays at all, but the airlines still canceled over 1,100 flights, a quarter of which were United Airlines flights.”

Summer travelers are facing mounting flight cancellations as demand rises and the industry tries to rebuild staffing levels after thousands of workers left the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“The reality is there are simply more flights scheduled across the industry than the (air traffic control) staffing system can handle,” United chief operations officer Jon Roitman said in a message to employees seen by Reuters.

“Until that is resolved, we anticipate that the US aviation system will remain challenged this summer and beyond.”

The FAA said it will “continue to fulfill our responsibility to hold airlines accountable, while standing ready to cooperate where necessary to ensure Americans can safely expect safe, reliable and affordable service when purchasing an airline ticket.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who met with airline CEOs on summer travel issues June 16, told CNBC on Tuesday that “air traffic control staffing issues don’t explain the majority of the delays and cancellations we’ve seen.”

US airlines have cut about 15% of scheduled summer flights, an airline trade group said last month, while United alone has temporarily suspended 12% of departures from its Newark hub due to congestion.

During the four-day holiday weekend of July 4, 8.8 million passengers were screened by US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints, up from 2020 and 2021 but around 12% down from 2019.

Roitman estimated that “over 50% of our delay minutes and 75% of our cancellations in the last four months were due to FAA traffic management initiatives.”

He said United performed better than their major rivals over the bank holiday weekend, but added: “We still have work to do to meet reliability and operational performance standards.”

Last month, an airline industry trade group said the FAA needed to ensure air traffic control was adequately staffed to avoid further disruption to travel over the summer, saying a key Florida center had been “understaffed 27 of the last 30 days, causing the… entire east coast paralyzes traffic flows.” Read more

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Reporting by David Shepardson; Edited by Himani Sarkar and David Gregorio

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