Spirit Airlines: ‘No Easy Fix’ For Jacksonville ATC Center’s Staffing Issues

Spirit Airbus A319
Credit: Ceri Breeze / Alamy Stock Photo

Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based ULCC Spirit Airlines says the FAA’s Jacksonville, Florida en route air traffic control (ATC) center continues to face staffing shortages leading to a challenging operating environment for airlines in the southeast U.S.

The Jacksonville facility is one of 20 en route FAA ATC centers in the U.S., responsible for 160,000 square miles of airspace covering parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. It also covers parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. 

Speaking last week at the Takeoff North America conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Spirit VP-Network Planning John Kirby said that “ATC has been a real issue” hampering U.S. airlines, adding to a host of other constraints, such as the pilot shortage and aviation supply chain issues.  

“The challenges at the Jacksonville center are really problematic,” he added. “The problem is that there is no easy fix.”

Kirby noted controller training is extensive, meaning new hires—while needed—will not immediately solve the problem of short staffing.

“We’re working through something that we’ve really never seen before,” he said.

Kirby added: “The Jacksonville center controls all of the inbound capacity in the state of Florida from the other 47 states [in the continental U.S.]. So, we’re having to deal with this, and it is very difficult. The air traffic control system is understaffed. The most senior, experienced [controllers] retired during the pandemic.”

Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) EVP Matthew Cornelius, also speaking at the TakeOff North America conference, echoed Kirby’s concerns. “Air traffic control is a huge, fundamental infrastructure piece of our business,” he said, adding that FAA controller staffing levels are “concerning” and “this isn’t new, frankly.”

The problem has “now reached a critical stage ... and unfortunately, like many other areas for [commercial aviation], this isn’t a quick fix ... So, we have a serious problem.”

Airlines for America (A4A) said last year that short staffing at FAA ATC centers is leading to repeated flight delays and cancellations. The Jacksonville ATC center was particularly highlighted by A4A as a problem in terms of staffing, contributing to flight disruptions in the U.S. southeast that can have a cascading effect. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last year that FAA had increased staffing by 10% at “a key Florida facility,” presumably the Jacksonville center.

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is a Contributing Editor to the Aviation Week Network.