FAA administrator ‘guardedly optimistic’ air traffic control hiccups are over

The leader of the Federal Aviation Administration thinks things have turned a corner after a summer of delays.

Billy Nolen, the agency’s acting administrator, told reporters Thursday that he felt the worst of the air traffic control delays were likely in the past.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that the rest of this year should be good,” Nolen said following an appearance at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aerospace Summit in Washington. “We will continue to work in close coordination and collaboration with the industry.”

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Air traffic control delays — sometimes due to staffing — have been a factor during a difficult operational summer for the airline industry. That culminated with an unusual agency warning on Aug. 15 about flight delays in and around the New York area due to ATC staffing issues at a facility on Long Island. A similar facility near Jacksonville, Florida, has also faced perennial staffing issues this year.

The FAA, Nolen said, has been ramping up its hiring of air traffic controllers and has had a good response.

“We had an overwhelming amount of interest, and so we’re on track to hire at least 1,500-plus for next year,” he said.

The new hires will report to the FAA’s academy in Oklahoma City as students, and then spend some time doing on-the-job training at an air traffic facility before they can work traffic on their own — so it will take some time to realize the effect of these new hires.

The FAA has been in something of a tug-of-war with airlines over who has been at fault for the delays this summer — and the agency, along with the Department of Transportation, its parent agency, has met multiple times with airline executives, urging them to reduce schedules to something considered realistic giving staffing and other constraints. Nolen said he was satisfied with what the airlines had done in that regard.

“The airlines have stepped up to the plate in what [Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg] has asked for,” he said. “And we’ll just continue to monitor things, just to make sure that the public is provided safe, efficient and economic travel.”