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Rich Santa’s Speech as prepared for AAAE/USCTA’s FAA Contract Tower Program Annual Conference (July 2022)

Good morning, and thanks for the introduction. I am very happy to be here with you at AAAE’s Contract Tower Conference.

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.  In 2001, I transferred to the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center and entered training again, before I became fully certified at ZDC.

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 although the majority of our members are FAA employees, we also represent controllers at 125 Federal Contract Towers and several DOD facilities as well. We have been developing stronger collective bargaining relationships with all of the contract tower operators, and I hope we can expand those into collaborative relationships on many workplace issues moving forward.

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. As you know, the Trust Fund pays for the vast majority of FAA’s Operations budget as well as all of its Facilities & Equipment budget, and all of the Grants-in-Aid to Airports or AIP budget. 

We also 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 and other key stakeholders are involved in its implementation.

The BIL – technically the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – is a once in a generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure. The BIL includes $5 billion for repair, maintenance, and replacement of FAA-owned air traffic control facilities, as well as upgrades for equipment including landing and navigational aids, and improvements to safety, security, and environmental standards at facilities.  At least $200 million of this funding must be allocated to contract tower facilities.  Many air traffic facilities have exceeded their life expectancy, while others require extensive repairs and/or replacement of critical physical systems including roofs, windows, HVAC systems, elevators, and plumbing.

The $5 billion for ATC upgrades in BIL is in addition to annual appropriations to FAA’s Facilities and Equipment account, which typically fluctuates around $3 billion per year. 

Another $20 billion will be issued as grants through a similar system as the Airport Improvement Program for airport projects, including a new $5 billion terminal program to replace aging terminals and airport-owned towers.  This is in addition to the normal appropriations for AIP.

We expect the new BIL funding will allow FAA and airport-owned towers to move forward with new projects and accelerate those already planned, including much-needed improvements to aging facilities, power systems, unstaffed infrastructure, and other needs.

NATCA, as well as those of you who are in attendance today, need to be vigilant to ensure that FAA’s F&E and AIP budgets provided for in the annual appropriations process are not reduced over the next five years while these additional BIL funds are committed to critical aviation infrastructure.

As traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels, restoring our national economic engine, NATCA members continue to maintain the safety and efficiency of the system despite remaining near a 30-year low for certified professional controllers. 

In 2011, there were over 11,750 Certified Professional Controllers and additional trainees yielding over 15,000 total controllers on-board at the FAA. 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.

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.

We all 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.

One of those shared interests is the Continuity for Operators with Necessary Training Required for ATC Contract Towers Act or CONTRACT Act. That’s a mouth full. The CONTRACT Act is bipartisan legislation that would provide an incentive for retired federal air traffic controllers to continue working as controllers at one of the 256 airports that participate in the FAA’s Contract Tower Program.

If enacted, the CONTRACT Act would allow controllers who retire from federal service to work as controllers at contract towers without their federal annuity supplement (social security supplement) being reduced or eliminated. This would allow experienced controllers to continue to contribute to the safety of the National Airspace System after they retire from the FAA without sacrificing a portion of their earned retirement benefits.  And, almost all new federal retirees are NATCA members, so we look forward to representing more of your towers in the future.

Late last year, the CONTRACT Act passed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs by unanimous consent. An identical bill has significant number of co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. NATCA hopes to translate this bipartisan, bicameral support, including NATCA’s support, into meaningful action and to have Congress pass this legislation into law. We must redouble our efforts, and if necessary, continue them into the next Congress and push for its inclusion in the next full FAA Reauthorization bill or an extension of the existing bill.  Together we can get it done!

Thank you.  I look forward to your questions.

What are you going to ask Congress to do about staffing?

The Controller Workforce Plan must provide Congress with a complete, accurate, and transparent picture of controller staffing.

NATCA will be asking Congress to require the FAA to include, for each facility:

  1. the number of CPCs,
  2. operational staffing targets, and
  3. anticipated attrition

in all future Controller Workforce Plans.

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