Space ships, storms and other reasons your Florida flight could be delayed this summer

May 4, 2022

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.


Headed to Florida sometime soon? You might have to wait just a bit longer to see Mickey Mouse or lounge on one of the state’s beaches.

Air traffic congestion has become a major issue, affecting flights headed into and out of Florida – and, in extreme cases, across the county.

While flight delays are an accepted part of traveling, they’ve gotten so bad recently in the northern part of the state that airline executives are starting to speak up.

“The airline industry has specific impacts with respect to Florida air traffic control and travel through there,” Southwest COO Mike Van de Ven said during the company’s first-quarter earnings call in April.

“The weather issues and resulting downline impacts were exacerbated by staffing shortages at the Jacksonville Air Traffic Control Center, which controls airspace over the northern two-thirds of Florida,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said during his company’s first-quarter earnings call, adding that the airline would be trimming its capacity through that area.

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The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for the nation’s air traffic control system, says that the issue is multi-faceted and the result of a number of problems happening at once. This week, the FAA met in Florida with airlines and other stakeholders about the issue, and the group will meet again to collaboratively work on solutions. Here are some of the issues that the FAA says is contributing to these delays.

Staffing

The airline executives tend to aim most of their ire on staffing, which is indeed a large part of the problem. The Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, known in the industry by its identifier, ZJX, is short-staffed, as are a number of other FAA facilities.

There has been a shortage of controllers for at least 15 years, a problem that surfaced as controllers hired after the 1981 ATC strike began to retire in waves. More recently, the issue has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The pandemic has affected the supply of new controllers — who take years to train — as well as the FAA’s new-hire training academy in Oklahoma City, which was closed for a period during the pandemic. Facility-specific on-the-job training that is conducted once controllers graduate from the academy (or transfer from other facilities) has been on and off during the various COVID waves due to social distancing concerns. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the labor union representing air traffic controllers, did not respond to a request for comment.

ZJX is Jacksonville Center, an enroute facility covering airspace in Florida and the Southeastern U.S. (Photo courtesy of MIT Lincoln Laboratory)

Weather

There’s been a marked increase in convective weather — think thunderstorms — in northern Florida in recent years. The map below, provided by the FAA, shows a significant increase in stormy weather across the Jacksonville Center’s airspace this past March, compared to previous years. That convective weather has the effect of closing down routing options for aircraft, meaning air traffic has fewer places to go, which can cause delays — especially on peak days, when a large number of flights are vying for space.

(Courtesy of the FAA)

Space launches

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has seen a significant increase in space launches in recent months, mostly consisting of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. For safety reasons, the airspace around the center, on Central Florida’s east coast, must be closed around the time of the space launch. This has a similar effect as the weather: there are fewer options for routing aircraft during these events.

More: FAA announces $1 billion investment in air traffic control system

The airspace is shared with the military

Florida’s peninsular shape makes some of its coastal waters an ideal spot for military aircraft to conduct training exercises. When Southwest had its severe operational issues last October, a U.S. Navy exercise that closed off some airspace was seen as one of the causes.

Florida is very popular right now

This is not only a supply issue but also a demand one. Since the early days of the pandemic, Florida has been one of the fastest domestic travel markets to recover, and many of the state’s airports are now operating with more traffic than before the pandemic, as both airline and corporate jet demand surge. FAA data shows that Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) is operating at 132% of its pre-pandemic levels, with Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) at 116%, Miami International Airport (MIA) at 113% and Tampa International Airport (TPA) at 107%.

Bottom line

An almost perfect storm-like confluence of factors is causing significant ATC delays in Florida. Staffing, weather, rocket launches, military exercises and increased demand are all making life difficult for airlines and their passengers. As the industry meets this week to work on possible solutions, airline executives are hoping that they will soon see relief in this important leisure market.

Featured photo of Orlando International Airport by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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