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Oct. 23, 2015 // Rinaldi Speaks at NATA Roundtable

On Tuesday, Oct. 20, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi spoke at the Aviation Business Roundtable hosted by the National Air Transportation Association (NATA). Rinaldi and Captain Joe DePete, First Vice President, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), International, engaged in a candid discussion about air traffic control reform from the labor perspective.

Over 30 top aviation professionals, including operators, service providers, labor representatives, and government representatives attended the event to learn more about the current state of the National Airspace System (NAS), and how a troubled funding stream and decreased staffing is affecting the NAS and NextGen implementation.

FAA funding is at the center of much of the recent discussion surrounding U.S. aviation. The last FAA reauthorization bill was drafted in 2007 and passed in Feb. 2012. During that time, there were 23 short-term extensions, a six-week partial shutdown of the FAA, and the threat of a full government shutdown. In 2013, sequestration cuts began, which mandated significant cuts across all FAA budgets. The FAA was forced to furlough air traffic controllers throughout the system one day per pay period, move to a fix-on-fail policy for critical equipment repairs and maintenance, halt hiring, and close the Oklahoma City initial training academy, effectively stopping the pipeline of new recruits. This unconscionable budgetary fix was a blow to the economic engine that is the most diverse, complex airspace system in the world.

“We need an FAA reauthorization bill, and more importantly, we need stable, predictable funding,” said Rinaldi, noting that avoiding a government shutdown by extending the budget for three months on Oct.1 is just another Band-Aid fix. There is still the possibility of extensions instead of a full FAA Reauthorization bill despite efforts of Congress to get a bill on the floor.

“Even though Congressman Shuster, R-Pa., and Congressman DeFazio, D-Ore., have both said they’re not looking for another extension, I don’t know how they resolve the issues in front of them within the next six months if they weren’t able to in the last nine months,” said Rinaldi. “So, I’m skeptical.”

On Dec. 11, the NAS faces a renewed threat of government shutdown. Speaker of the House John Boehner decided to resign, in part to avoid a potential government shutdown on Oct. 1. There are only six weeks left to find a new Speaker, and that still does not guarantee the government will remain open. The new Speaker could decide to follow Boehner’s lead and keep the government running, but there is also a distinct possibility of a government shutdown. Politics continues to hold the government and the NAS hostage.

“There is a lot of tension within government employees and air traffic controllers, but at the end of the day, that tension revolves around the question, ‘Why can’t representatives get their act together in Congress?’” Rinaldi said. “Facing more cuts and a full shutdown is frightening. Air traffic controllers are essential. They come to work and don’t get paid until it’s resolved. They had 30 days without paychecks last time. That pressure is a deep concern. They could be thinking, ‘Maybe I should just retire and find a different profession.’”

Losing these professionals without adequately trained controllers to replace them will not only affect air traffic, but the U.S. aviation industry as a whole, Rinaldi made clear. He called aviation, “a uniquely American tradition.” It was developed and honed here. The U.S. is the world leader, the “gold standard” in aviation. It contributes $1.5 trillion to the gross domestic product and helps to support over 12 million jobs. The U.S. runs 134 million operations a year and is incomparable to any other system in the world. The next biggest system, NavCanada, runs 12 million operations a year. In order to maintain this standard, it is imperative that the workforce be able to focus on the operation, and not on how to scrounge the capital to pay for it.

“The airspace is unique in that it could fund itself, come off government budget, and continue to grow,” Rinaldi said. “If we continue in the current system, the FAA would have no choice but to start shrinking it.”

The continued desire of all NAS users is having a stable, predictable funding stream.

“The NAS is an economic engine and the safest air space in the world,” said Captain DePete. “We have collaboratively gotten that safety standard where it is today, despite the issues we have encountered. Can you imagine what could happen if there was the political will to fund this thing properly?”

There are many ideas circulating about what a new funding stream for the NAS might look like. NATCA is steadfast in its position that whatever the new structure Congress adopts, it must be a not-for-profit system.

With the increase of air traffic and the influx of new aircraft into the system, one of the biggest threats facing the future of the NAS is the understaffing of air traffic controllers at facilities across the country.

“I am ringing the bell that our facilities are critically staffed,” Rinaldi said. “We need to focus on hiring, and we need to focus on proper placement.”

Prior to the 2013 sequester, the FAA didn’t have any problems meeting its hiring needs because there was a steady stream of controllers coming directly from the military and CTI programs. Soon thereafter however, FAA Human Resources (HR) made some impulsive changes to the application and hiring processes.

“At that time, the head of HR at the agency decided to try a new hiring policy,” Rinaldi explained. “They would no longer take directly from the military and CTI programs, but would use bio-data questionnaires that would somehow be able to cull the list of about 28,000 down to an acceptable number of applicants to run background and security checks on. That was a failed process, I believe.” Consequently, the FAA missed its hiring mark by 14 percent in 2014 and by 34 percent through the first 11 months of the 2015 fiscal year.

This hiring shortfall has been an unfortunate trend since 2011, Currently, there are 10,859 certified professional controllers (CPCs) in the system, and another 3,047 in training. It takes two-to-four years of training to become a CPC. Alarmingly, out of those CPCs, 30 percent of them are eligible to retire.

“We need butts in seats,” Rinaldi said. “It’s beyond frustrating that this is where the FAA seems to be paying the least attention.”

DePete echoed the concerns surrounding short staffing and the implication for modernization projects within the NAS.

“We are very interested in NextGen and safety is our number one priority,” he said. “Everything we do centers around that.”

In order to test and implement new NextGen technologies and enhanced safety systems, controllers need to be able to come off position to work on the new procedures advancing the system. NextGen also requires controllers to work collaboratively with pilots and engineers to complete these projects successfully and in a timely fashion.

“I have a shortage of controllers who can work traffic, and at the same time, a shortage of controllers who can work on modernization systems,” Rinaldi said.

Continuing to maintain the safest, most efficient, most advanced airspace in the world is everyone’s top priority. Rinaldi closed by noting that critical levels of staffing will continue to be of deep concern for NATCA.

For more information on current staffing levels, go to NATCA.org.