Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the union representing United Airlines’ pilots have pushed back against the narrative of United CEO Scott Kirby in blaming the Federal Aviation Administration and its shortage of air traffic controllers for the operational woes United is experiencing this week.
Pete Buttigieg Vs. Scott Kirby On United Airlines Delays
Earlier this week in a blunt email to employees, Kirby placed the blame on United’s high rate of delays and cancellations on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA):
I’m also frustrated that the FAA frankly failed us this weekend. As you know, the weather we saw in EWR is something that the FAA has historically been able to manage without a severe impact on our operation and customers.
Not so fast, says Transportation Security Pete Buttigieg. In an interview on CNN, Buttigieg reasoned the fact that such travel disruptions were, at this point in the week, unique to United suggests that placing the blame on a shortage of air traffic controllers is not appropriate.
“Look, United Airlines has some internal issues they need to work through. They’ve really been struggling this week, even relative to other US airlines…
“I want to be very clear, air traffic control issues are not the number one issue causing cancellations and delays. They’re not even the number two issue. All the data, including industry’s own data is very clear on that.”
That position was echoed by The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union representing United pilots. Captain Garth Thompson, head of United ALPA, said:
“United’s travel disruptions this week stem from one source; company senior management’s inadequate planning and insufficient investment in the airline infrastructure.
“Our pilots agree with our passengers that this lack of foresight and disregard of warning signs is unacceptable. It’s time for United leadership to change their thinking and invest in its labor, staff support, and facilities with updated contracts instead of ensuring our CEO has the highest salary.”
It should be noted that pilots are in the midst of a harsh and ongoing battle with United Airlines for a new contract.
So is Kirby right or do Buttigieg and ALPA make the stronger point?
Well, clearly United was stretched too thin to handle operations this week and that does not reflect well on the carrier. On the other hand, United has a fortress hub in Newark and when a flow control program severely limits arrivals and departures there, the domino effects of delays and cancellations are not unexpected.
The problem for United is Newark: its schedule is too ambitious when contrasted with the realities of the congested air space around it that make it extremely difficult to run an on-time operation, even when the weather is cooperating.
Is this event totally United’s fault, like the Southwest meltdown last year in which its ancient software totally lost track of where pilots and flight attendants even were? Perhaps not, but flight attendants have reported 18-hour holds in reaching crew scheduling and we are now seeing parallels.
Whether United goes into “full meltdown” mode over the holiday weekend is still an open question. Delays and cancellations continue to mount today. We are either seeing the end of a rough patch or just the beginning of a major meltdown.
image: United Airlines (with Buttigieg superimposed)