US aviation authorities may delay some space launches to avoid air traffic disruption

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) slows the volume of airplane traffic over Florida

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Thursday it may delay some space launches to minimize disruption to commercial air travel and provide "equitable" access to airspace near launch sites.

Space launches have often snarled air schedules, especially in congested Florida airspace. Officials are worried about a repeat of last summer's air travel woes - when more than 50,000 flights were cancelled in the United States and hundreds of thousands others delayed - in the face of rising demand and airline and flight control staffing shortages.

The FAA said it will consider factors like number of flights and passengers affected when deciding whether a commercial space launch should go ahead or the scheduled time changed. The FAA will also look closely at launches around holidays or major events like the Super Bowl.

Airlines for America, which represents major carriers, praised the FAA for the move. It said planned launches have sometimes been scrapped at the last minute, resulting in hours of restriced airspace and wasted emissions as planes waited at their gates.

Airlines expect 145 space launches in 2023, an increase of 222% since 2020.

A March 11 space launch in Florida was highly disruptive to air travel, the airline group said in a memo seen by Reuters.

Four major U.S. carriers reported approximately 99,000 incremental flight delay minutes, impacting 303,000 customers. The memo added "the launch resulted in an additional 227,000 gallons of fuel burn for three of the four U.S. carriers" or an additional $630,000 in fuel cost and 4.9 million pounds of CO2 emissions.

The FAA has taken other steps to try avert travel woes this summer including agreeing to a request by Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to temporarily cut up to 10% of flights at congested New York-area and Washington airports this summer because of an air traffic controller shortage.

Major U.S. airlines previously cut about 10% of scheduled flights this spring to address performance issues. Last summer air traffic control staffing was a factor in delays of 41,498 flights from New York airports, the FAA disclosed in March.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, editing by Deepa Babington)