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How Florida space launches and FAA staff shortages are affecting Tampa’s airport

The impact to Tampa International Airport is significant, an airport official said. “It’s something that we haven’t seen in years past, certainly not to this degree.”
A traveler checks out the departures monitors at Tampa International Airport. Airlines have canceled over 3500 flights over the weekend due to weather and staffing issues, Monday, April 4, 2022 in Tampa.
A traveler checks out the departures monitors at Tampa International Airport. Airlines have canceled over 3500 flights over the weekend due to weather and staffing issues, Monday, April 4, 2022 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 5|Updated May 5

Florida’s airspace is crowded, and it’s causing major travel problems.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday it plans to hire more air traffic controllers in Jacksonville and improve communication with airlines over space launches after federal officials met to discuss the massive flight delays and cancellations coming out of Florida.

Tampa International Airport officials also want their own meeting with the FAA, executive vice president of operations John Tiliacos told the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority on Thursday. He said the airport wrote to the government agency to better understand the challenges and what’s being done to remedy them. Most flights must pass through airspace managed by the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center — which has struggled with staffing — to get to Tampa International Airport.

“The impact to our airport operation is very significant and it’s something that we haven’t seen in years past, certainly not to this degree,” Tiliacos said.

There’s a mix of factors affecting Florida travel right now, from the FAA labor shortage to the state’s airspace being more congested, Tiliacos said.

Travel demand to Florida has outpaced the rest of the nation during the pandemic recovery. The private space industry has also accelerated in the past decade — causing flights to be rerouted toward Florida’s Gulf Coast around the hours of a rocket launch. And when storms hit the state, the ripple effect of flight delays and cancellations can spread across the nation.

Between April 2-4, a storm hit Florida and caused more than 3,500 flight delays across the U.S. It delayed 400 flights and canceled 350 in Tampa, airport officials said. Planes waited on Tampa’s taxiways for two to three hours, impacting nearly 50,000 passengers that weekend. It wasn’t the first time, either: Several logjams in October also left thousands of Tampa travelers scrambling for flights or delayed for hours.

Tiliacos said he’s hoping some of the changes announced Wednesday will take effect ahead of Florida’s summer thunderstorm season.

Several airline executives have said they’re pulling flights out of Florida due to the FAA staffing shortages. On top of that, seat capacity out of Tampa is expected to be down in June and July from pre-pandemic years by 5.5 and 2.3 percent respectively, because airlines have slashed schedules to “build resilience into their networks,” said Christopher Minner, Tampa airport’s executive vice president of marketing and communications.

“This has had an outsized impact on our operations given our large concentration in Florida,” said Spirit Airline’s president and CEO Ted Christie in an earnings call Wednesday. Spirit is based in Miramar. “As a result, in mid-April, we made the decision to decrease some flying in Florida and increase the buffers in our schedule.”

JetBlue CEO Joanna Geraghty said last month no one could have expected 115 hours of air traffic control delays in April out of Florida compared to just 22 hours in 2019.

During the two-day meeting, the FAA said it would update airlines more regularly about space launch schedules and other events affecting flights traveling through Florida after airlines said they’ve been caught off guard by route closings that force them to cancel flights. The FAA also said it would allow for more alternate routes, some at lower altitudes, to keep the flow of air traffic moving during disruptions. The FAA also plans to focus on efficiency, similar to the plan used in the busy New York City area, to combat traffic jams.

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Reporting from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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