The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is calling for a congressional hearing about the chronic understaffing of air traffic control facilities. New data shows that national staffing totals have fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011.
“I want to be clear: The safety of the air traffic control system is not at risk,” said NATCA President Paul Rinaldi. “But maintaining safety is coming at the cost of efficiency and modernization. We have far too few controllers in our towers and radars rooms. If left unaddressed, the situation could result in delays similar to those the country experienced in April 2013, when air traffic controllers were furloughed due to the mandatory budget cuts. Bureaucratic inertia is slowing the hiring process, and at the worst possible time. The number of fully certified air traffic controllers is at the lowest level in 27 years.”
Official Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data shows the agency will miss its air traffic controller hiring goal for fiscal year 2015. This will be the fifth consecutive fiscal year in which the FAA has not hired enough air traffic controllers to keep up with the pace of workforce attrition. As of August 22, 2015, the FAA had only hired 1,178 of a planned 1,772 air traffic controllers, putting the agency 34 percent behind its goal.
Of the 10,859 certified controllers, 30 percent are eligible to retire at any time. There are only 1,844 controllers currently in training to replace them. Training controllers takes two to four years, depending on the facility at which the new hires are placed. Once placed at a facility, an average 25 percent of trainees do not complete the training and certify.
At inadequately staffed facilities, the FAA requires controllers to work six-day weeks through the use of overtime. Some of the facilities that serve the busiest and most complex airspaces are understaffed. These include Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities (TRACONs) in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and New York. At these five facilities, the number of fully certified controllers is below the level deemed adequate by FAA standards, and controllers are forced to work six-day weeks.
At Atlanta TRACON, the number of fully certified controllers has dropped to 74 — 28 short of the needed 102.
At Chicago TRACON, there are 70 fully certified controllers instead of the 100 needed, and 39 percent are eligible to retire at any time.
At Dallas-Fort Worth TRACON, positions normally worked by two or three controllers are routinely combined into one position staffed by a single controller doing the work of three. Often, this person is a trainee newly certified on that single position.
At Houston TRACON, there are 73 fully certified controllers instead of the 93 needed.
At New York TRACON, the number of fully certified controllers has dropped to a 25-year low of 147.
“Air traffic controllers are incredibly resilient, but we see that they are in dire straits and we must speak up,” said NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert. “Our workforce is suffering. If the health of the controller workforce declines, the health of the National Airspace System declines. We are asking Congress to examine the issue so we can find ways to set this country’s aviation system up for success. If nothing changes, there simply won’t be enough air traffic controllers to maintain the current level of services, much less implement long overdue modernization efforts.”
Air Traffic Controller Staffing: 2011-2015
By the Numbers: Air Traffic Controller Staffing Crisis at Major Hubs