Buttigieg Asks Airlines To Adjust U.S. Southeast Routes Over Holidays

generic air traffic control tower
Credit: James L. Amos / Getty Images

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) is asking airlines to more frequently use over-water routes on flights between airports in Florida and North Carolina during the busy holiday season.

Additionally, DOT is requesting that airlines give FAA more advance notice of expansion plans in “high-growth markets” so the agency has adequate time to allocate air traffic control (ATC) resources.

In a letter to U.S. airlines, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said there are “encouraging” signs the delays and cancellations that plagued airlines and airports during the summer season are easing. But he cautioned that the upcoming holiday season, running from Thanksgiving in late November to Christmas and New Year’s eve, is a high-traffic period. 

“FAA expects a significant volume increase in Florida this winter, just as we saw last year,” the secretary wrote.

One area where Buttigieg said airlines could reduce congestion is on routes along the U.S. southeast coast, specifically between North Carolina and Florida. American Airlines has hubs both in Charlotte (CLT) in North Carolina and Miami (MIA), and multiple airlines operate routes connecting the two states.   

“In the spirit of continued partnership and preparation, I am inviting your attention to additional steps available to you that FAA believes could improve reliability this winter based on anticipated volume mentioned above,” Buttigieg wrote.

“FAA has determined that over-water Atlantic routes between North Carolina and Florida were underutilized this past winter season, even during times of high congestion, because some aircraft were not equipped to use them,” he said. “To help avoid delays, we strongly encourage you to ensure your fleets traveling to and from Florida are equipped to use these over-water routes when inland routes are congested.”

FAA requires “approved flotation gear readily available to each occupant” of an aircraft using an over-water route. 

Airlines for America (A4A) has previously said FAA’s Jacksonville, Florida enroute air traffic control (ATC) center has been understaffed, contributing to flight delays and cancellations in the U.S. southeast that can have a cascading effect. Buttigieg noted FAA has increased staffing by 10% at “a key Florida facility,” presumably the Jacksonville center, one of 20 enroute ATC centers in the U.S. 

In a response to the secretary’s letter, A4A said the increase still leaves the center short staffed. “This year, U.S. passenger airlines increased staffing to above pre-pandemic levels, and the FAA has recently increased ATC staffing in that area by 10%,” the organization said in a statement. “However, as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association [union] has pointed out, more ATC staffing is needed.”

Buttigieg also wants airlines to give FAA more warning when increasing capacity or starting new routes at crowded airports.  

“I would ... like to emphasize the value of collaborating with air traffic control as a vital part of supporting safe and reliable travel,” he wrote. “The sooner you can make FAA aware of growth plans in high-growth markets such as Denver (DEN) and Phoenix (PHX), the more effective we can be in aligning resources to make sure air traffic controllers are ready to respond. We welcome growth, of course, but preparing for it can be a challenge and calls for good communication, early and often, so we can work together in a way that best serves the traveling public.”

He noted: “FAA is also seeing indications that routes between Colorado and Arizona could experience even higher volume than last year.”

The secretary added he is “encouraged by the industry’s recent efforts to begin addressing long-term staffing issues, including expanding recruitment for careers in aviation, establishing flight academies and increasing pilot salaries, especially at regional airlines.”

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.