FAA extends NYC ‘slot waiver’ amid air traffic controller shortage, flight delays

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The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday that it will extend its slot waiver for New York City-area airports through Oct. 28, citing an ongoing shortage of air traffic controllers in the region.

The slot waiver was initially issued to cover May 15 through Sept.15 as part of an effort to avoid congestion and help airlines and controllers recover from delays caused by summer storms.

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In a statement, the FAA said the extension aligns the waiver with the official summer travel season, which is defined by the International Air Transport Association and which typically sees greater travel demand. Notably, airlines have said that summer travel habits are extending further into the fall, suggesting demand will remain high through at least October.

The slot waiver allows airlines to operate fewer flights to and from the affected airports but use bigger planes to avoid reducing the total amount of capacity on certain routes. The FAA said that under the summer slot waiver, the total number of flights into New York City airports has been reduced by 6%, even as the total number of seats has increased by 2%, thanks to the use of bigger jets.

Read more: The FAA has a plan to reduce delays at New York airports this summer — here’s what it means for travelers

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., is included in the waiver, largely because many of the reduced flight frequencies were routes between New York and Washington.

The background: How do airport ‘slots’ work?

“Slots” are essentially “rights” for an airline to operate at certain high-volume airports. Each slot an airline possesses gives it the right to operate one takeoff or landing. A “slot pair” refers to one arrival and one departure slot. The slot system regulates air traffic flow and prevents dangerous overcrowding at airports. It also prevents anti-competitive entrenchment by carriers.

In the U.S., there are three airports where the FAA enforces slot controls: John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA).

Another busy airport in the Northeast — Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) — is considered “schedule controlled.” This is a similar system with several minor differences.

Understanding slots: The little-understood government rule that allows airlines to dominate certain airports

The number of slots is finite, barring an unlikely move by the FAA to add more, meaning that airlines cannot add new flights at these airports without somehow acquiring new slots from another carrier.

The FAA enforces a “use it or lose it” rule aimed at preventing airlines from hoarding slots without using them — a tactic that would essentially shoulder out the competition.

As part of that rule, airlines must use each slot at least 80% of the time. Otherwise, the FAA can revoke the slot and give it to another airline.

Because of the 80% rule, airlines typically make full use of their slots, occasionally leasing them to other airlines if they can’t find a valuable use for them. During slow periods or market changes, airlines have been known to operate unprofitable or unnecessary flights to avoid losing slots they expect they might need at a later point. This practice is sometimes referred to as “squatting” on slots.

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Under the slot waiver, airlines can return up to 10% of their slots without losing them.

Even with the waiver, unusually frequent severe weather this summer has thrown airline operations into disarray on several occasions, with flight delays becoming more common and passengers facing extended delays and difficulty rebooking canceled flights.