Another story on United Airlines today thanks to a long note to staff that CEO Scott Kirby just sent out. Kirby has put together a timeline seeking to explain what happened and exactly why United suffered an operational meltdown this week. It is helpful to examine and yet the takeaways are unsettling.
Scott Kirby Explains Why United Airlines Faced Operational Meltdown This Week
A very detailed note was just posted to United’s internal website and shared with Live And Let’s Fly.
In short, Kirby traces the issue back to bad weather at Newark Airport (EWR) that limited flight operations, causing a domino effect of disruption across the system. Let’s take a look at the specifics:
While there was weather around the system, the truly unprecedented severe weather was focused at EWR. We dealt with severe restrictions on flight operations starting Saturday that lasted through Tuesday.
- EWR has 40 departures per hour scheduled;
- On June 25, we were limited to less than 20 departures per hour for four hours;
- On June 26, we were limited to less than 20 departures per hour for nine hours;
- And on June 27, we were limited to less than 20 departures per hour for six hours
That means the total number of aircraft that could depart EWR was reduced between 60-75% for an average of 6 to 8 hours each day. Airlines, including United, simply aren’t designed to have their largest hub have its capacity severely limited for four straight days and still operate successfully.
I shared my thoughts earlier this week about the FAA’s need to staff up. Since then, I have personally had incredibly thoughtful and constructive conversations with the FAA and Secretary Buttigieg. The current FAA leadership team inherited these challenges, and to their credit, they have been public that they’re thousands of controllers short — and the NY/NJ airspace, in particular, is understaffed. N90, which manages all the New York and EWR airports, is also probably the most technically challenging job anywhere in the world in aviation which means that experience also makes a difference.
But here’s how those staffing issues – combined with days of rolling thunderstorms – really impacted United:
Thunderstorms moving west to east typically hit EWR first when they roll through the NYC area, and that closes the two departure fixes that aircraft use to travel west out of EWR. Pre-pandemic, when that happened, some of our flights still had a chance to depart to the north and then fly west over Canadian airspace to get where they needed to go. Sure, in those cases the flights were longer, and we took delays, but we didn’t have to cancel. But today, Canada’s air traffic control is short staffed too, so they’ve closed those routes. So now, we often get reduced to a single digit (and often zero) departures per hour. And that’s basically what happened between June 24-27. The reality is that EWR simply can’t function under thunderstorm conditions unless there are departure routes to the west and that’s one of the biggest takeaways that the FAA is diligently working on with us and Canada.
And after the storms ended, it took us a few more days to recover. The level of disruption we experienced left our aircraft and crews scattered around the country and out of position. There are, however, definitely things we can learn to do better in the future to recover faster.
I found this explanation very helpful. And yet this is the reality and that Kirby himself has been warning about for months and therefore while I do think Kirby is correct that this situation was not United’s fault to begin with, a schedule from Newark that remains to ambitious doomed operations and made a bad situation much worse.
Scott Kirby Proposes Five Solutions To Avoid Future Meltdowns
Kirby next proposes five solutions he hopes will reduce repeat occurrences of this week:
More improvements to our crew technology. Our crew systems are among the best in the world, but they’re simply not designed for what we went through this past week. We had very long hold times, and while we already have a lot of online capability, we still have far too much manual work – that’s not acceptable. Our goal in the future is that you won’t need to call crew scheduling and can self-serve and do everything online via an app that’s just as good as our customer-facing app. We’re committed to making that a top priority.
Partnership with the FAA is critical. Like I said, the FAA is engaged on this, and they’ve taken significant steps in the short term like bringing in more senior managers on weekends and working with NATCA to cover for any vacation/sick calls. Plus, we both have significantly increased the day-to-day communication between the FAA and United, with a focus on EWR.
Support FAA efforts to find long term solutions. First and foremost, that means continuing to advocate for passage of the bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill that gets them the right staffing, invests in infrastructure and technology modernization, and gives the FAA more certainty in investing so that they can accomplish long term projects. We are also supportive of the FAA’s initiative to move EWR ATC from N90 to PHL which we and the FAA believe will help with operations at all three large NY area airports.
We need to balance departures and arrivals at EWR. When departure routes are shut down (because of thunderstorms to the west), arriving aircraft keep landing and because aircraft can’t depart to create space for them, they fill up the taxi ways because they are stuck in a long line.If just one aircraft in that line is waiting to depart, then all the aircraft behind them are stuck and so, the whole conga line is trapped. The traditional way the FAA manages capacity constraints is arrival rates. At most airports, this is fine since there’s multiple taxiways, gates, and other places to park aircraft.But they’ve agreed with us to work on balancing arrivals and departures at EWR, in particular.
EWR is the best international gateway that exists anywhere in the country. But it’s also the most operationally difficult airport in the country. The Port Authority is working with us to get more gates (which are critical to avoid gridlock on the taxiways), but we are going to have to further change/reduce our schedule to give ourselves even more spare gates and buffer – especially during thunderstorm season.
Numbers one and five are what United has control over and reducing flight schedules and accelerating technology to replace the manual needs for crews to call the help desk is essential.
Number four has interesting ramifications: we might see more proactive cancellations or diversions in poor weather events precisely because landing at Newark exacerbates a bottleneck, leading to more delays and cancellations.
The private jet issue has been a distraction not only in undermining Kirby’s leadership, but in taking attention away from the operational meltdown itself. The timeline makes sense and while it is not reasonable to blame United for the weather or for FAA staffing shortages, it now becomes incumbent upon United to reduce schedules out of Newark in order to avoid repeat occurrences of this week. There is no other way: Kirby himself said, “The reality is that EWR simply can’t function under thunderstorm conditions unless there are departure routes to the west.” Until such departure routes exist (and even with a reduced schedule), Newark is going to be a mess this summer when the inevitable summer storms arrive.