In a surprisingly candid email to employees, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby expressed frustration that the Federation Aviation Administration (FAA) failed his airline over the weekend, leading to a ripple effect that continues today and is being further exacerbated by East Coast storms.
United Airlines CEO Blames FAA For Operational Mess
Kirby will typically get in front of a camera and record a video for employees, but last night an email went out that was shared with Live And Let’s Fly. Let’s examine the note and analyze whether Kirby’s concerns are valid.
I wanted to say thank you for the incredible work you did this weekend under what were unprecedented challenges. I know it was very tough on each of you, and it’s not over yet with weather continuing today on the East Coast.
But I want you to know that I’m proud of you.
Indeed, it’s not over yet as I found out last night…
The operation is pretty messy today, though it all started over the weekend in which bad weather plus an FAA staffing shortfall led to a domino effect of flight disruptions.
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.
This past Saturday, however, was different.
The FAA reduced the arrival rates by 40% and the departure rates by 75%. That is almost certainly a reflection of understaffing/lower experience at the FAA. It led to massive delays, cancellations, diversions, as well as crews and aircraft out of position. And that put everyone behind the eight ball when weather actually did hit on Sunday and was further compounded by FAA staffing shortages Sunday evening.
As a result, we estimate that over 150,000 customers on United alone were impacted this weekend because of FAA staffing issues and their ability to manage traffic.
Kirby blames the FAA for slowing down traffic into Newark, which he deduces can only be blamed on a staffing shortage.
To be fair, it’s not the fault of the current FAA leadership that they are in this seriously understaffed position – it’s been building up for a long time before they were in charge. But it is incumbent on them now to lead and take action to minimize the impact. It’s not their fault, but they are responsible for solving the problem they inherited.
There is no way Kirby is going to bite the hand that feeds him, so any frustration will be tempered in this way. Blaming U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg or FAA Acting Administrator Polly Trottenberg is not going to be helpful in solving this problem.
In the next few days, I will be in touch with officials at FAA and DOT to discuss what steps FAA can take in the immediate term to prevent this from happening again this summer and offer my assistance to help lobby for the resources that the FAA so desperately needs to finally resolve these issues.
It isn’t clear to me that there is a short-term fix for the staffing issue.
While I’m frustrated that the FAA is letting us and our customers down, I’m encouraged at everything all of you are doing to manage the best we can. At United, our team will continue to do great things to take care of customers no matter what happens outside of our control. We’ll also remain overstaffed and over resourced for as long as it takes to minimize the impact on our people and our customers.
Thank you to everyone who went above and beyond this weekend.
I agree that the FAA is letting customers down. But if this weekend foreshadows what the summer is going to look like, it would behoove United to reduce its schedule now…in order to avoid a weekly meltdown and also playing a key role in letting customers down. Because it seems to me that the bottleneck at Newark Airport is not going to clear up anytime soon and that hiring and training additional staff cannot be done in a matter of days or even weeks…it will take months.
I appreciate Kirby’s candor and fully concur the FAA understaffing is a huge problem that has contributed to United’s operational woes over the last few days. That said, in the eye of the customer United will be the one blamed if these delays and cancellations continue. With no overnight solution in sight, I fear United will need to pare back its schedule or else face a summer of operational woes.