Skift Take

Travelers must be ready for busy airports and full planes this Thanksgiving. And just remember, no one controls the weather.

U.S. authorities are taking a number of measures to ensure smooth flights for the record number of people set to take the skies this Thanksgiving.

Actions by the Department of Transportation include opening certain military airspace off the East Coast and over the Gulf of Mexico to commercial flights to ease congestion, and prioritizing commercial aircraft departures over private jets at airports across the country, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Monday in Washington, D.C.

“While we can’t control the weather, we will also be using every tool at our disposal to keep cancellations and delay as low as possible,” he said noting that there is some inclement weather forecast across the U.S. in the coming days.

The Transportation Security Administration and U.S. airlines forecast a record 30 million air travelers over the 12-day Thanksgiving holiday period that began on November 17 and wraps November 28. The Sunday after Thanksgiving, November 26, is forecast to be the busiest day.

Last year, U.S. airlines carried roughly 27.5 million travelers over the Thanksgiving holiday period, according to trade group Airlines for America.

This year’s holiday forecast comes amid an aviation industry already straining at the seams. Airlines face a shortage of captains at their regional affiliates and “juniority,” where experienced staff are in short supply after a post-pandemic surge in new hires. And the U.S. still faces a shortage in air traffic controllers, particularly in the busy New York market, that has contributed to flight delays and cancellations this year.

The DOT’s push comes nearly a year after Southwest Airlines suffered a system-wide meltdown after severe weather hit several of its large bases between Christmas and New Years. The carrier has invested in both updated technology and ground equipment, particularly de-icing trucks, to help it better handle severe weather this year.

Buttigieg, noting that some delays and cancellations are outside of anyone’s control, emphasized the DOT’s passenger protection efforts. This includes the creation of a dashboard that shows what customers are entitled to at every major U.S. airline in the event of disruption.

Addressing the Air Traffic Controller Shortage

While ensuring Thanksgiving air travel is as smooth as possible, Buttigieg and recently-confirmed Federal Aviation Administration Michael Whitaker have the unenviable task of staffing up the nation’s air traffic controller ranks and modernizing the dated air traffic control infrastructure. A safety audit earlier in November found that without any changes to its hiring and training processes, the FAA would only net roughly 200 new controllers by 2032 — barely putting a dent in its roughly 3,000 controller shortage.

“My initial focus has been on how to make these numbers go up quickly without lowering safety,” Whitaker said at the event with Buttigieg.

The FAA is already implementing some of the recommendations of the audit in order to boost controller numbers. Those include filling every seat at agency’s training center in Oklahoma City — called a “bottleneck” in the report — and reinstitution of a program that facilitates new college graduates to enter the controller training process.

However, one area the DOT has little control over is funding. The report highlighted the lack of stable funding, which is subject to the whims of Congress, as an issue for both air traffic control staffing and FAA modernization.

The FAA wants to hire 1,800 new air traffic controllers this year — up from 1,500 last year — but can only do so if its budget request is approved by Congress. That request is on hold given the budget impasse on Capitol Hill; the government is currently funded through January at last year’s levels until the divided Congress can come to a budget compromise. If it does not reach a deal, the U.S. government would shutdown.

In addition, the FAA’s every-five-year reauthorization expires on December 31. That includes funds for major long-term investments, like air traffic control modernization.

“We’re doing everything we can with everything that we have but, if some voices in Congress got their way, we’d have to freeze hiring new staff,” Buttigieg said citing unnamed Congressional Republicans. “We’d be setback in modernizing computer systems … It would disrupt the progress we’ve made, and I’ve certain it would lead to more disruptions in air travel.”


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Tags: air traffic control, airlines, dot, faa, holiday travel, pete buttigieg, pilots, southwest, thanksgiving

Photo credit: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker talk Thanksgiving travel. Edward Russell / Skift

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