DOT to audit FAA staffing challenges after Southwest Airlines chaos

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The federal Department of Transportation’s inspector general will audit hiring and staffing challenges at the Federal Aviation Administration after Southwest Airlines blamed mass cancellations over the weekend on a shortage of air traffic controllers.

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Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits, issued a memo Tuesday announcing the audit, which he said would "assist FAA’s efforts" to keep air traffic control fully staffed and continue training new hires amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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"Since the pandemic started, controllers at numerous air traffic control facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, leading to partial shutdowns of towers and radar control facilities and impacting staffing and training operations," the memo said. "Moreover, with veteran controllers leaving for various reasons, including retirements, and increased training demands, FAA faces the challenge of ensuring it has the required number of controllers."   

Unclaimed baggages wells up between carousels for passengers arriving on Southwest Airlines flights at Denver International Airport late Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Denver.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski / AP Newsroom)

IG reports in 2012 and 2016 documented ongoing staffing challenges, the memo said. The 2016 audit found the FAA "had not yet established an effective process for balancing training requirements with pending retirements." 

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Southwest Airlines blamed the thousands of canceled flights on air traffic staffing shortages, but the FAA has denied there being any shortages since Friday, when it admits that there were a "few hours" of delays due in part to staffing issues.  

Airline industry expert Arthur Wheaton of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations said the US DOT audit had been a long time coming.

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"Our air traffic control system is woefully out of date. They haven’t really invested in that system in decades," said Wheaton. "There have been issues with our skies — having too many planes and not enough computer capacity to route them for 40 years … It makes it more dangerous and more difficult to manage."

Southwest, its union and the FAA have all denied any connections between the weekend’s chaos and President Biden’s forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine requirement for airline employees.

The airline’s CEO on Tuesday told CNBC his airline was "significantly set back on Friday." 

"When you get behind, it just takes several days to catch up," CEO Gary Kelly said

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