For reasons not entirely clear at this time, the FAA decided on Wednesday it needed to shut down all departures and arrivals at Honolulu Airport due to a medical issue in the tower. The problem was not long-lasting, yet it was enough to throw flights into rapid disarray. While our primary concern is for the well-being of the FAA employee involved, it also raises serious questions about what is going on in the FAA control tower at Hawaii’s largest airport.
Based on an email we received from the state, the ground stop at Honolulu Airport (HNL) started just after 1:00 PM on Wednesday. A subsequent email came about an hour later from the State of Hawaii, Department of Transportation/Airports saying “The ground stop on interisland and mainland flights has been lifted.”
There was no further explanation given at that time. We’ve since learned from the FAA that the issue was a medical emergency affecting one of its employees in the HNL control tower. It isn’t clear why, in a tower staffed by multiple people, that incident would result in the airport virtually closing. But, in this case, that’s what happened. The FAA added only that they stopped all flights due to the first responders attending to their employee.
117 Honolulu flights were delayed and two were canceled.
We don’t have adequate information at this time to determine how many of these delays and cancellations are as a result of the FAA issue in the control tower. However, we analyzed data over the prior three days and know that there were fewer than 60 flight delays on average on those days. That means that at least 60 additional flights were delayed as a result of the FAA problem.
FAA staffing is a huge concern in Hawaii and nationwide.
Just last month the U.S. airline industry said it is increasingly worried about the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control staff shortages. This problem, according to the airlines, is snarling flights and more. Airlines report that they are cutting some flights on a voluntary basis as a result of air traffic control shortages.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said that the lack of air traffic control staffing “was two decades in building and it is going to take years to get it addressed.” The FAA acknowledged recently that it’s about 3,000 controllers behind in its own staffing targets. There are also over 2,500 controllers currently undergoing training.
Concerns come following a number of near-miss incidents in the United States this year, some of which allegedly related to air traffic controller errors. Last month, New York Times said that “Near misses involving U.S. commercial airlines happen on average multiple times a week.”
It’s also been reported that at times controllers are required to work mandatory overtime and six-day shifts in order to cover employee shortages.
The Industry group Airlines for America’s CEO Nick Calio said last month with regards to hiring, “It will take five to seven years to break even if all goes well. Do we need five to seven years of further disruption on a daily basis? I don’t think so.”
What isn’t yet clear is whether staffing shortages at HNL were the reason that a single-person health issue could result in the complete closure of departures and arrivals at the largest airport in Hawaii.