Southwest Airlines has taken quite a bit of heat from the press for their system failure that led to the cancellation of thousands of holiday flights last month (including my own). The Federal Aviation Administration has loved every second of it.
If the public blames Southwest Airlines for the cancellation of thousands of holiday flights, they won’t blame the federal agency that also grounded all flights for the first time since 9/11 last week. Instead of blaming the industry they regulate, Congress should direct its attention to reforming the FAA.
I spent six hours on Christmas Eve waiting to board a Southwest flight out of the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. I had booked the earliest of three 90-minute flights to my hometown in Maine that day, hoping that if Plan A did not work out, I would have Plans B and C on which I could fall back. Six hours later all three were cancelled.
Though a deadly blizzard had pummeled the Northeast the day before, the weather was not standing in our way. The problem, as our unflappable gate agent kept explaining to disgruntled passengers, was that per FAA regulations we needed one more flight attendant before we were allowed to board.
As has been widely reported, Southwest relies on an antiquated system where all employees must call in to report their whereabouts and get approval over the phone to waive their rest time. Southwest never undertook the capital expenditures to automate the system so they could operate at lower cost and continue to offer cheaper flights than their competitors, giving poorer Americans access to air travel. Therefore, when the blizzard disrupted air traffic, hold times for Southwest employees to check in or get their rest times waived were up to four hours or more.
Thus, the absurdity of waiting six hours for one of the hundreds of flight attendants in the BWI breakroom to get through to someone at Southwest to receive a waiver so she could work on one extra 90-minute flight. The final cruel irony was that one flight attendant finally got through, received her waiver, and marched triumphantly up to our gate – about 10 minutes after our pilot was reassigned.
Flight attendants clearly must jump through too many hurdles to take on extra short, domestic flights. This greatly impairs the ability of any airline, especially a budget option like Southwest, to adapt to extreme weather on the fly. As the primary regulator of airlines, the FAA should know that biggest travel week of the year is around Christmas, which falls at the beginning of winter and often sees airline disruptions from storms. Their rigidity towards short domestic flights during the holiday travel period is inexcusable.
So it was that the FAA’s regulations stressed Southwest Airlines to the point of breaking and stole Christmas from me. As of mid-January, however, the agency’s heart showed no signs of growing three sizes. Only their ineptitude trebled.
Per new FAA regulations finalized in October that take effect this month, flight attendants must now take 10 hours of rest time between shifts, up from eight. This will surely exacerbate the existing problem. As Reuters reports, most flight attendants already get 10 hours of rest but have room for flexibility.
In practice, most U.S. flight attendants already get a 10 hour break between shifts, but they previously had more flexibility if there was a short flight they were willing to take on to help stranded passengers get home for Christmas. The new rules, mandated by Congress, will not help flight attendants while reducing airline flexibility at a time when the agency should be looking for ways to increase it.
Nor has flight attendant rest time been the only failure by the FAA in the past month. On Wednesday, January 11, all U.S. commercial flights were prevented from taking off for the first time since 9/11. There was no national tragedy causing 1,300 flight cancellations and 9,000 delays; there was only a computer failure. This time, it was the FAA’s antiquated system that failed. NOTAM, which the AP describes as the FAA’s computer system that compiles and distributes essential safety information for pilots, crashed. Like Southwest, the FAA had to rely on phone calls to distribute information, but the lines were soon overwhelmed and all planes were grounded out of an abundance of caution.
A terrorist attack shaking the nation is perhaps the most valid reason to shut down the U.S. airspace. Government software malfunctions causing a shutdown is inexcusable. The FAA will doubtless tell Congress that the only solution is for appropriators to shovel more money at the agency so they can buy new computers – basically, they will argue that Congress should reward their failure with a bonus.
After this cavalcade of incompetence, Congress should spend 2023 demanding accountability from the FAA. Come Christmas 2023, the FAA must not be rewarded for its mismanagement with a funding increase. Appropriators should instead consider coal for this agency’s stocking.
James Erwin is Federal Affairs Manager at Americans for Tax Reform and Executive Director of Digital Liberty.