FAA clears Delta to pause some flights in NYC, DC over crew sick calls
The Federal Aviation Administration just gave Delta Air Lines a big break — by allowing it to fly less.
The issue has to do with FAA slot rules. The Atlanta-based carrier maintains hub operations at two airports with FAA slot controls, LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, and a sizable presence at a third, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), just outside of Washington, D.C.
FAA rules state that an airline must use a minimum of 80% of the slots that it has been allocated, or they are subject to reassignment.
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In a filing with the FAA in late June, Delta told the agency that it is having trouble flying 80% of the flights that it has slots for at these slot-controlled airports. It blamed four different factors: airport construction at LGA and JFK, air traffic control delays, severe weather and a significant number of sick calls by pilots and flight attendants due to COVID-19.
The FAA granted the relief — but only because of the sickouts. In May 2022, Delta said its pilot sickouts were up 45% over May 2019, and its flight attendant sickouts were up 23%. For pilots, that number increased to 50% in June 2022 over June 2019.
As a result of the relief, the FAA will count Delta's canceled flights as flown ones between June 1 and Sept. 5 at the three airports. In June, 2,889 mainline Delta flights were canceled, or 3.3% of Delta's scheduled flights, according to FlightAware. That number improved significantly in July, with 943 mainline flights canceled — 1% of Delta's schedule. Those numbers don't include Delta Connection flights — which are also covered by the FAA's slot relief order.
"FAA believes it is appropriate to provide relief to afford opportunities for Delta to make schedule adjustments or reductions and to adjust resources and staff assignments as appropriate at these key airports," the agency said in a letter to Delta's chief legal officer, Peter Carter. "The Department’s and FAA’s preference is for Delta to reduce flights from sale to minimize disruptive, close-in cancellations."
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The FAA rejected Delta's reasoning for the other three reasons it stated. It stated that the construction at LaGuardia is nearly complete and under Delta's control and that the JFK construction at Terminal 4 only has "minimal impact." The agency also said that cancelations due to severe weather and ATC-related delays "do not meet the applicable waiver standard."
Domestic slot usage requirements were completely waived between the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and October 2021. International slot usage requirements remain waived until Oct. 29, as international air travel has been slower to recover than domestic travel.
Slots are an item of immense value to airlines, providing access to sought-after airports. Had the FAA not ruled partially in Delta's favor, it's possible that Delta would have had to return some slots, which could have threatened to erode the airline's dominant position at LGA and JFK, where Delta is the largest carrier.