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Memorial Day launches what's expected to be an extremely busy summer travel season


The Memorial Day holiday launched what's expected to be an extremely busy summer travel season. Now, for the past 10 years, NPR's David Schaper has covered the economics of the transportation and travel industries and how we get around. He'll soon be moving on, but he joins us today for a final conversation about transportation. David, all right. We often get dire warnings about travel and safety on the road and in the air. So for the last few people trying to make their way home from Memorial Day getaways, how's the traffic been for them?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, you know, the roads and highways were pretty bad at times, I experienced firsthand Friday afternoon, heading out of town here in Chicago at a peak getaway time. But, you know, more people are shifting their travel. They're leaving earlier ahead of the holiday weekend or staying a little bit longer to avoid driving at peak times and facing all that highway congestion. You know, that's happening with air travel, too. As far as flight disruptions, there were very few flight delays and cancellations, relatively speaking. Well below 1% of all flights scheduled were canceled over the weekend, even though we had the highest numbers of people flying since the pandemic began. And that's really a remarkable turnaround for the airline industry, which has struggled to meet a surge in demand last summer, starting with last Memorial Day weekend.

MARTÍNEZ: Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, was on the program last week, and he told us one of the biggest constraints on air travel is a lack of air traffic controllers. And you spoke with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. How are he and the FAA addressing that?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, the FAA says it's short about 3,000 air traffic controllers, and the shortages are greatest in areas with the most congested airspace, including the New York area, which as of this spring had only 54% of the air traffic controllers it needs. Buttigieg says the agency is hiring hundreds of controllers to fill those critical jobs. But it's just not a quick, simple process to train them.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: To be an air traffic controller in a complex airspace, it takes not just a year of training to have the job in general, but at least another year to learn that geography in particular. And that's part of why the long ripple effects of Covid are still with us, even long after some of the worst days of the pandemic are behind us.

SCHAPER: So Buttigieg and the FAA have asked airlines to reduce the number of flights they're flying into and out of New York, Washington, D.C., and a few other places. Many airlines have agreed to do that and are just using bigger planes so they still can cut flights but meet that increased demand.

MARTÍNEZ: What about weather delays? I mean, we seem to be getting more of those.

SCHAPER: Yeah, you know, climate change is bringing more severe weather more often, and that affects air travel operations significantly, you know, from hurricanes and thunderstorms to wildfires and blizzards. We've seen a runway flooded and closed for several days recently in Fort Lauderdale. Runways and roadways have been buckling under extreme heat. Buttigieg says it's forcing officials to look at infrastructure in new ways to make it all more resilient to withstand extreme weather. And he added that we can't design an airfield or a highway for the - in the 2020s the same way it was in the 1950s.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned infrastructure, President Biden's big infrastructure spending law, how's that been going?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, it is a game changer in the amount of funding devoted to fixing bridges, highways, railways, transit systems and airports. It's prioritizing resiliency and making more equitable infrastructure investments and undoing some of the harms from years past. But, you know, inflation is eating a big chunk of the $1 trillion plan. Costs for materials like concrete and steel have skyrocketed. So too have labor and equipment costs. So, you know, it might not have the same impact that Congress and the White House intended.

MARTÍNEZ: David, you've covered all sorts of news throughout your 20-plus years at NPR. Transportation, though, has been your main beat for the past decade. What do you think has been the most significant transportation story during that time?

SCHAPER: You know, for me, it's the Boeing 737 MAX plane crashes in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. You know, Boeing put in a flawed flight control system with just a single point of failure, something that should never happen in aviation. They hid it from regulators and pilots who didn't know how to respond when it erroneously forced those planes into steep nosedives. And really, it's a travesty. And the families of the 346 people who were killed in those crashes feel as though Boeing might never be held fully accountable.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR transportation correspondent David Schaper. David, thanks.

SCHAPER: You know, it's been a pleasure, A. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.