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NATCA President Rich Santa’s Speech at Aero Club, as prepared (July 26, 2022)

The following is the speech that NATCA President gave at the Aero Club in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2022.

Jana, thank you so much for your warm introduction. 

The Aero Club’s mission is “to foster and promote interest in the principles and development of aeronautics and to extend honors and hospitalities to eminent airmen” and women. Being able to speak to you today is an honor. What a humbling experience this is, taking this stage at the Aero Club lunch following Secretary Buttigieg’s address last month and two months after Senator Cantwell. Reflecting on their remarks as I prepared to speak with you today helped me put into perspective the incredible influence of the Aero Club.  And I want to acknowledge you for what you do to make U.S. aviation the best in the world. 

Let me introduce myself. I am an air traffic controller. I am a private pilot. I am an aircraft owner. In 1997, I was hired by the FAA to train to become an air traffic control specialist at the New York TRACON.  After training for more than a year, I completed training and became a Certified Professional Controller, our journeyman level.  I subsequently transferred to the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center and entered training again. I mention this, because, as we face controller staffing challenges in the FAA, it’s not as simple as moving fully certified professional controllers from one facility to another. Controllers who are fully certified in one facility, must still train on the maps, frequencies, airspace, procedures, and traffic at their new facility and there is no guarantee of how long it will take or that they will be successful. 

As NATCA’s President I am particularly attuned to the aviation safety professionals we represent and the effects they have on the flying public. Everything starts with people. NATCA is a labor union and one of our missions is to further the public’s interest in safe and efficient transportation. 

This mission was tested by the COVID-19 pandemic.  As essential workers, even during a pandemic our members are required to work in their facilities, on positions that are physically located in close proximity that does not allow for adequate social distancing, using shared equipment. 

NATCA and the FAA swiftly worked to make decisions and create new procedures to protect the aviation safety professionals we represent, so they could ensure the continuation of the safe and efficient operation of the National Airspace System. 

NATCA members are also proud of the work we have done during this difficult time. Our members have been responsible for the safe and efficient delivery of PPE throughout the pandemic and have helped deliver hundreds of millions of vaccine doses across the country and internationally.

As traffic cratered at the start of the pandemic, we worked with the industry and Congress on ways to protect the airlines’ workforce with a Payroll Support Program and then to restore the Airport and Airways Trust Fund which was decimated by the pandemic. We worked to ensure that robust funding for aviation infrastructure was part of the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But now, we all must ensure that NATCA is involved in its implementation. 

As traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels, restoring our national economic engine, our members continue to maintain the safety and efficiency of the system.  But, just like during sequestration and the 35-day government shutdown, the pandemic again forced FAA to suspend hiring and temporarily close its training academy. This has negatively affected staffing.  And, as I said before, it all starts with the people.

In 2011, there were over 11,750 Certified Professional Controllers and additional trainees yielding over 15,000 total controllers on-board. By the beginning of 2022 there were more than 1,000 fewer fully certified controllers, and 1,500 fewer total controllers on-board, a number that has declined for at least the past 11 years.  Unfortunately, FAA staffing is not keeping up with attrition. With the introduction of new technology and new entrants into the NAS we should have 1,000 more controllers not 1,000 fewer than we had a decade ago.

To help illustrate this issue about how this affects the system, I will use the example of Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, which handles airspace covering parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina as well as portions of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Jacksonville Center’s situation that I am about to describe epitomizes the staffing issue across the country. The Air Traffic Organization-NATCA jointly agreed to an operational staffing target of 275 CPCs.  However, as of July 20, there were only 205 controllers certified at Jacksonville Center.  That’s 70 fewer CPCs than the staffing target number. In the FAA’s current Controller Workforce Plan, FAA finance reports a staffing range of 235-287 controllers and reported 241 currently on-board, including trainees, making it look like it’s right in its staffing range. As of last week there are 50 trainees at Jacksonville Center who may or may not ever become fully certified. FAA finance would say with 205 CPCs and 50 trainees that it’s fully staffed. But, we know that Jacksonville Center is 70 CPCs short. Recent delays in Jacksonville Center’s airspace have been caused by a variety of issues, including unprecedented convective weather, a significant increase in commercial space launches and reentries affecting air traffic flow, and airline operational challenges. But, FAA staffing challenges are also a piece of this complex puzzle. 

If you indulge me, I’m going to give you a visual example to help you understand this issue.  Table seats 10 people…fully staffed

2 empty seats

6 of the 8 are fully qualified and 2 of them are trainees

FAA finance would say this is a fully staffed table with 8 controllers.

But, everyone else can see that it’s only 60% staffed and those 6 are required to work 100% of the traffic.

FAA finance must move away from reporting the staffing ranges it has developed and instead work with NATCA and the ATO to report transparent operational staffing targets to Congress and the public, so that everyone has an accurate picture of air traffic control staffing.

All of the people in this audience have an interest in accurate staffing information, appropriate and transparent Certified Professional Controller staffing targets, and a pipeline of trainees to keep pace with attrition.   

As NATCA looks forward to the upcoming conversation about FAA Reauthorization, we will be calling on Congress to address this staffing and reporting issue. We will also be seeking robust funding levels for all of FAA’s budget areas, particularly Operations and Facilities & Equipment. As always, we will continue to be involved on issues that affect new technology and infrastructure. And we will be focused on new entrants into the NAS, including Advanced Air Mobility and UAS, and how they affect air traffic operations and our members. It is imperative that NATCA is an integral part of the discussion concerning the introduction of new entrants into the existing NAS in a safe manner.  NATCA will not be an impediment to the introduction of new entrants, rather we intend to assist in their integration in a way that ensures the continued safe and efficient operation of the National Airspace System. We look forward to working with many of you on our shared interests as this process advances.

Thank you.  I look forward to your questions.

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