By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday said airlines should ease congestion at Florida airports by equipping their planes so they can fly over water along routes that have been under-utilized.
Buttigieg told airline chief executives in a letter seen by Reuters that “over-water Atlantic Routes between North Carolina and Florida were underutilized this past winter season, even during times of high congestion, because some aircraft were not equipped to use them.”
Florida flights have increasingly been a choke point for U.S. aviation especially as bad weather and space launches often prevent some airspace from being used.
Buttigieg added “to help avoid delays, we strongly encourage you to ensure your fleets traveling to and from Florida are equipped to use these.”
Over-water routes require airlines to carry enough life rafts to accommodate all occupants of the airplane in the event of a loss of one raft of the largest rated capacity.
Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group, said it was “pleased Secretary Buttigieg and the FAA recognize that air traffic to and through Florida has increased significantly” but did not address the over-water route issue.
Florida is a major part of U.S. air traffic and for some airlines, like JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines (LUV.N), 40% or more of daily flights typically touch a Florida airport.
Airlines and Buttigieg clashed for months over summer woes that led to tens of thousands of flight disruptions and prompted the department to pressure airlines to do more to boost service to passengers.
Buttigieg struck a positive note on Thursday.
“While there is still a long way to go, we are seeing an encouraging reduction in rates of cancellation, in part thanks to efforts earlier this summer to stress-test and adjust flight schedules to better match staffing,” Buttigieg wrote.
In June, A4A said a key air traffic control center in Florida had been “understaffed for 27 of the last 30 days, which is crippling to the entire East Coast traffic flows.” A4A said the FAA has recently increased ATC staffing in the area covering Florida by 10%.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Howard Goller)