Transportation Policy

Blame the Feds for Your Canceled Flight This Memorial Day

Staffing shortages and laughably out-of-date technology in the federal government's air traffic control system are leading to a lot more flight delays.


If your Memorial Day weekend travel plans are ruined by flight delays, you might want to consider blaming the federal government.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that it has only about 80 percent of the air traffic controllers it needs nationwide, with some regions of the country falling far short of that. The air traffic control facility covering New York City area airports only has about half the controllers it needs, the agency reported in March.

It predicts that staffing shortfalls and spiking summer travel demand could see delays increase by nearly 50 percent.

The FAA blames the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for its staffing shortages. Air traffic controller trainings were delayed to accommodate social distancing, and subsequent programs to expedite the training of more controllers haven't made up for lost time. Meanwhile, record numbers of people are expected to travel this summer.

These shorter-term stressors are putting a lot of strain on a government-run air traffic control system that's been very slow to adopt new technology.

"These problems have come out of years and years of underinvestment," Geoff Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association told NPR. "If the government doesn't act now, the headaches won't just happen during peak travel season and holidays, it will become our daily reality."

"We're about two decades behind peer countries," said Marc Scribner, a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation (which publishes this website), of the U.S.' air traffic control technology back in January. "And the problem is not getting better."

When Scribner said that, it was in the wake of the crash of the Notice to Air Mission System—which provides pilots breaking information about conditions at airports—which temporarily grounded thousands of flights.

Most rich countries have spun off their traffic control operations into government-owned corporations or nonprofit user cooperatives. In the U.S., the FAA manages air traffic control operations directly.

That arrangement has long been criticized for creating a conflict of interest: The FAA is both regulator and operator of air traffic control systems. Having a budget set by Congress and having to abide by government procurement regulations has also slowed the agency's adoption of technology that's standard for less-government-managed systems.

U.S. air traffic controllers still track flights using paper strips, while the rest of the rich world has adopted electronic systems. The paper strips were considered laughably outdated all the way back in 2009 when Reason produced a documentary about them.

The Trump administration last tried to spin off air traffic control operations into a nonprofit entity in 2017, but that reform went nowhere—like many delayed travelers this weekend.

The Biden administration hasn't shown any interest in air traffic control reform either, meaning we can expect problems stemming from our backward system to only get worse.