FAA Activates New, Faster Routes along U.S. East Coast

 - May 1, 2023, 12:44 PM
A Delta Boeing 767 taxis at New York JFK Airport in February 2015. The airline plans to cut between 5 and 10 percent of its departures from New York City airports this June and July.(Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-SA) by Anna Zvereva)

The FAA has activated 169 new routes along the east coast of the U.S. described by the agency as more direct than the legacy routes they replace, saving fuel, enhancing safety, and reducing flight times. Announced on Monday, the new routes take effect just in time for a busy summer season that airlines expect will tax the nation’s air transportation system to its limit.

Working with the industry for more than seven years to develop and implement more direct high-altitude routings, the FAA said the shorter routes—operating primarily above 18,000 feet along the East Coast, as well as offshore over the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico—will shave off 40,000 miles and 6,000 minutes of travel time annually. 

The agency expects the change to mitigate delays by giving air traffic controllers more capacity to direct traffic to specific routes based on the aircraft’s destination. It will also give controllers more flexibility to change routings based on weather, with fewer converging points and more simple flows enhancing safety.

The FAA has sunset the legacy routes built when aircraft largely relied on ground-based radar rather than GPS.  

“These significant improvements to our national airspace system are just in time for summer and will help travelers get to their destinations more efficiently," said Tim Arel, the chief operating officer of the FAA’s air traffic organization. "The new routes will reduce complexity and redistribute volume across all available airspace. I’m proud of the FAA and industry’s strong collaboration on this project to get it done."

Authorities hope the redesigned traffic flows will help alleviate some of the delays and cancellations airlines have experienced due to air traffic controller shortages at, for example, the New York Tracon. According to FAA data, nationwide certified professional controller (CPC) staffing averages 81 percent of the agency's target while the New York Tracon sits at about 54 percent, largely due to training capacity deficits resulting from temporary safety mitigations put in place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the FAA claims that dedicated training initiatives have reduced most of the training backlog, the New York Tracon remains woefully understaffed.

In response, the FAA has granted waivers to United and American Airlines that allow for each to voluntarily return 10 percent of their slots at JFK, LGA, and DCA from May 15 through September 15 without risk of forfeiture. The FAA generally follows IATA guidelines for slot rules at what it categorizes as Level 3 airports, where insufficient infrastructure or government-imposed conditions make it impossible to meet demand. Under normal circumstances, airlines at Level 3 airports must use their slots at least 80 percent of the time during the allocation period or risk losing them.

For its part, American Airlines will reduce flights at LaGuardia and Newark International Airport (EWR)—a non-slot-controlled, Level 2 facility where the airlines collaborate with an FAA schedule facilitator to ensure that they don’t compromise capacity. United Airlines said it would cut its schedule from its Newark hub from 438 to 408 flights a day while also reducing frequencies between LaGuardia and Washington Dulles Airport. Delta, meanwhile, told AIN on Monday that it plans to cut between 5 and 10 percent of its June and July New York City departures in markets where a wide range of flight options are available.  

To compensate for the resulting frequency cuts, the airlines said they would fly larger airplanes on several routes. In fact, United has said it would manage to increase its seat capacity by 2 percent for the summer season by “upgauging” from regional jets to mainline narrowbodies, for example.