Send raft-equipped planes to help reduce Florida flight delays, Buttigieg tells airlines

Ahead of the busy holiday travel season, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has a request for airlines: Send more planes equipped with rafts to Florida.

Airspace around Florida is congested for a multitude of reasons, and Buttigieg said he’d like airlines to use more of the offshore routes located over the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s east coast. Those routes — which require extra survival equipment, including rafts, on board in case of emergency — were underutilized last winter, he said in a letter Thursday to airline CEOs.

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The overwater routes that Buttigieg said were underutilized are highlighted. FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION

Federal regulations consider aircraft that fly more than 50 nautical miles (57.5 miles) from the shoreline to be conducting “extended overwater operations.” In these cases, the planes require additional equipment, including rafts, life jackets, pyrotechnic signaling devices (such as flares), emergency beacons and a survival kit. Not every aircraft contains this equipment, which is expensive to both acquire and maintain — not to mention, it weighs a considerable amount.

Buttigieg’s letter comes after an early summer of significant flight delays around Florida. While the worst of the delays have subsided, airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration continue to dispute their root cause. Airlines believe air traffic control staffing is insufficient, particularly at a facility near Jacksonville, Florida, that handles traffic en route to and from the Sunshine State. For its part, the FAA has said that airlines need to work on staffing up, as well as right-sizing schedules.

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

Buttigieg addressed both sides of the debate in the letter, which had a largely upbeat tone; his notes resembled comments made in September by acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen.

He said that the facility near Jacksonville, known as the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, has increased its staffing by 10% (though those are trainees who will largely contribute longer-term to the facility). He also noted progress made with airspace closures due to space launches.

As for airlines, he said that the industry has learned from what he called an early summer “stress test.” He added that the industry had made progress with “long-term staffing issues” and singled out the huge pay increases that regional airline pilots have seen recently, as those carriers grapple with a pilot shortage.

More: The room where it happens: Inside the FAA Command Center

Buttigieg also turned his attention to two other key markets that have seen growth in recent years: Denver and Phoenix. He implored airlines to share growth plans with the FAA as early as possible to ensure ATC staffing resources are properly deployed.

“FAA is also seeing indications that routes between Colorado and Arizona could experience even higher volume than last year,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter, a copy of which TPG received.

“The sooner you can make FAA aware of growth plans in high-growth markets such as Denver and Phoenix, the more effective we can be in aligning resources to make sure air traffic controllers are ready to respond,” he added.