NATCA EVP Trish Gilbert outlines the issue of worsening air traffic controller staffing levels
Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is calling for a congressional hearing regarding the chronic understaffing of air traffic control facilities. National staffing totals have fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011.

We want to be clear: The safety of the air traffic control system is not at risk. Air traffic controllers are incredibly resilient. But we see that they are in dire straits and therefore we must speak up. 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 sequestration’s mandatory budget cuts. Over those seven days of furloughs in 2013, there were 12,760 flights delays. For comparison, there were 3,860 delays during the same week in 2014 and 4,919 delays during the same week in 2012. We are not saying these delays will happen next week or next month, but we are saying that if this trend of reduced staffing continues, we are heading in the same direction as we did in April 2013.

The end of the fiscal year has given us an opportunity to take inventory of where we're at staffing-wise, and unfortunately the FAA 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 pace with 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. The number of fully certified air traffic controllers is at the lowest level in 27 years.

Of the 10,859 certified controllers, 30 percent are currently eligible to retire. Alarmingly, 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. Due to the complexity of work and stringent demands of the job, only about 75 percent of those trainees  are likely to reach full certification.

We have been working with the FAA to address this mutual concern for several years now. However, the situation now warrants legislator and industry scrutiny. Maintaining safety is our top priority, but without proper staffing at our facilities, efficiency and modernization efforts could be negatively impacted.

The staffing crisis is a systemic problem and deteriorating daily. We are highlighting five Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities to show how bad the staffing crisis is at some our nation’s busiest air traffic facilities, specifically Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and New York TRACONs. We have a fact sheet with data and information about the situations at these facilities. What makes these and other busy TRACONS in the country unique is that in most cases, placing newly hired controllers directly into these busy facilities simply does not work. Experienced controllers from mid- and high-traffic facilities must be placed in our busiest TRACONs in order to improve staffing because they will be the most likely to successfully complete training. It is very much like the farm system in baseball.

Staffing the system appropriately takes years of planning, and it has been ignored for way too long. NATCA identified the scope of the problem years ago and rolled up our sleeves to develop processes, improve training, streamline hiring, and efficiently and effectively place controllers throughout the system. Our goal was to prevent the predicament we are in today. Unfortunately the FAA has not demonstrated the same focus and zeal to proactively address the issue; it seems they will allow the downward staffing trend to continue. Unfortunately, by that time, capacity will likely already be adversely affected. Even today, the setbacks to modernization efforts are real; pulling subject matter experts from facilities to develop, test, and implement new procedures and technologies is becoming almost impossible.

Our intent today, with the release of these numbers, is to take the next step and call for a hearing to discuss possible solutions. In our view, those solutions should include:

•    The FAA must work harder to cut through the bureaucratic inertia that is slowing the hiring process.

•    The FAA must institute a more functional, efficient placement and transfer process that takes into account the needs of the entire system, not just  individual facilities.

Our workforce is suffering because of the staffing shortage. If the health of the controller workforce declines, the health of the National Airspace System declines. We are urging Congress to examine the issue so we can 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.