DOT OIG: FAA at Fault for Controller Staffing Shortages
NATCA Calls on Congress to Require FAA to Immediately Implement Updated Staffing Standard and Conduct Maximum Hiring
WASHINGTON – The Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on Friday, June 21, finding that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “has made limited efforts to ensure adequate controller staffing at critical air traffic control facilities” echoing what the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has been saying for years.
”There are currently 1,200 fewer fully certified controllers today compared to ten years ago,” said NATCA President Rich Santa. “FAA’s flawed staffing model and inconsistent hiring has resulted in new hires not keeping pace with attrition over the past decade. The status quo is no longer sustainable.”
Corroborating what NATCA has been saying about the need for a long-term commitment to hiring and training, the DOT OIG found, “FAA cannot ensure it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term.”
What the Office of Inspector General Found
The DOT OIG’s Audit Report AV2023035, titled “FAA Faces Controller Staffing Challenges as Air Traffic Operations Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels at Critical Facilities,” concluded that “while the United States has one of the safest air traffic systems in the world, the lack of fully certified controllers, operational supervisors, and traffic management coordinators pose a potential risk to air traffic operations.”
Regarding controllers, the DOT OIG wrote, “FAA continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.” For example, the DOT OIG “determined that 20 of 26 (77 percent) critical facilities are staffed below the Agency’s 85-percent threshold” and that “managers we interviewed at 16 of the 17 facilities likewise told us their facilities were not adequately staffed. For example, at several facilities, controllers were working mandatory overtime and 6-day work weeks to cover staff shortages.”
Unfortunately, the FAA continues to follow its flawed staffing model from its Controller Workforce Plan (CWP), developed annually by its Office of Labor Analysis (OLA), which is part of the Office of Finance and Management (AFN). The DOT OIG found that “FAA’s Office of Labor Analysis (OLA) develops the Agency’s annual CWP, which includes the staffing ranges for all air traffic control facilities. Yet, as we noted in our 2016 report, Headquarters staff and air traffic managers disagree on staffing numbers.”
FAA Must Implement New Staffing Standard
At the direction of the FAA Administrator, this past December and January, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) partnered with NATCA to collaboratively determine the number of fully certified controllers (CPCs) needed to meet facility operational, statutory, and contractual requirements, including resources necessary to develop, evaluate, and implement processes and initiatives affecting the National Airspace System (NAS). This effort was called the Collaborative Resource Workgroup (CRWG), and it also included the MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (MITRE CAASD), the FAA’s Federally Funded Research and Development Center, as an independent third-party to validate the group’s work.
Overall, the CRWG found that 14,335 CPCs are required to meet all the FAA’s requirements, compared to the 12,062 that FAA’s current model suggests. Despite the AFN model failing to keep up with attrition and operational requirements – currently there are only approximately 10,600 CPCs – the FAA continued to rely upon the flawed AFN staffing model to develop its 2023-32 CWP.
Congress Must Intervene
“NATCA is pleased that legislation to reauthorize the FAA in both the U.S. House of Representatives (“Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act” (H.R. 3935)) and the U.S. Senate (“FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023” (S. 1939)) would require the FAA to base its CWP on the CRWG CPC targets rather than the flawed AFN staffing model,” Santa said. “Considering the DOT OIG’s report, FAA should do so without the need for congressional intervention and Congress should not require further study of the issue.”
Both bills also include provisions to require an evaluation of expanding capacity at the FAA Training Academy, which NATCA supports.
In addition, NATCA urges both authorizing committees to require the FAA to hire controller trainees to the maximum throughput of the FAA Academy (“maximum hiring”) in addition to experienced controllers in each year of the reauthorization.
Finally, NATCA further urges FAA, as part of the annual budget process, to request from Congress the necessary resources to accomplish maximum hiring and training, and calls on both the House and Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations subcommittees to provide this funding so FAA can meet its revised hiring requirements.
As the DOT IG stated, “increasing controller staffing requires hiring additional controllers in excess of retirement rates.” It is clear FAA’s AFN-developed CWP staffing model has failed to do so over the past decade.