A strained U.S. aviation system braces for a record-setting week of holiday travel

United Air Lines planes line up along the busy Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, on the eve of Thanksgiving on November 23, 2022. Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

United Air Lines planes line up along the busy Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, on the eve of Thanksgiving on November 23, 2022. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

Records are likely to fall this week as millions of Americans take to the skies for Thanksgiving.

The annual rush of holiday travelers will test a U.S. aviation system that is straining to keep up with demand. But federal regulators say the system is resilient and ready.

“This year, we are seeing more people flying than ever with fewer cancellations than we have seen in years,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at a press conference on Monday.

The Transportation Security Administration is predicting it will screen more than 30 million people during a 12-day window that started last Friday.

“We’re ready to go,” TSA deputy administrator Holly Canevari said at a travel industry conference in Washington, D.C. last week. “I think the Sunday after Thanksgiving will be our record-breaker” for a single day, Canevari said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expecting nearly 50,000 flights on Wednesday alone.

“While we don’t control the weather, we’re doing everything in our power to keep flights safe and keep cancellations and delays low this Thanksgiving,” said Mike Whitaker, the newly-appointed administrator of the FAA, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate last month.

The FAA responds to a troubling safety warning

Whitaker is confronting deep concerns about safety in his first weeks on the job. An independent safety review board appointed by the FAA is calling for “urgent action” to prevent plane crashes after a series of close calls on runways across the country this year.

The panel’s 52-page report, released last week, raises extensive concerns about the shortage of air traffic controllers, as well as outdated equipment, that are “rendering the current level of safety unsustainable.”

Whitaker says the FAA welcomes the report, and has already announced several new initiatives to speed up the hiring of more air traffic controllers. Those include hiring qualified students directly from aeronautical colleges and universities, and deploying dozens of high-resolution tower simulators across the country to take some pressure off of the agency’s training academy in Oklahoma.

The FAA is also looking at how to lower the attrition rate for aspiring air traffic controllers.

“There’s a fairly high failure rate” at the training academy, Whitaker told reporters on Monday. “My initial focus has been on how to make these numbers go up quickly without lowering standards.”

While troubling, some of the challenges outlined in the independent safety review are not new.

“We have not put the resources we need into funding the air traffic control system — not just this year or last year, but for decades,” said Geoff Freeman, the CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “We have not prioritized it. We’ve kicked the can down the road on modernization efforts, and we’re paying the price for that today.”

Flight attendants brace for the holiday rush

Full planes and crowded overhead bins could make for a challenging holiday in the flight cabin as well.

“The holidays have always been a time period that flight attendants sort of dread going to work,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants union.

“The flying is much harder. You have inexperienced people, you’re answering more questions. There’s fewer of us,” she said. “Which then often means that passengers are trying to work things out between each other, and you don’t have a referee there right at the start.”

Nelson says it used to be widespread across the industry for flight attendants to earn more on holiday shifts, but those incentives have been gradually eroding. She urges travelers to keep all of that in mind when flying.

Thankfully, she says, most do.

“The vast majority of people come to the door of our airplane with kindness in their heart and a desire for a safe, uneventful flight.”

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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