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New York Times: Right on Staffing, Wrong on Portrayal of Air Traffic Controller Conduct

(WASHINGTON) – NATCA denounces the unfair and inaccurate portrayal of air traffic controllers in today’s article in the New York Times. It does not portray the professionalism and skill with which air traffic controllers perform their complex and stressful duties every day, 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year. The National Airspace System (NAS) is at its safest point in its history, and this is largely because of the dedication and expertise of the air traffic controller workforce and other aviation safety professionals throughout the industry.

Air traffic controllers are subject to stringent medical, psychological, and drug and alcohol testing. The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Federal Air Surgeon sets the medical qualifications for air traffic controllers, including which medications controllers are allowed to take and continue to work. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has been working with the FAA’s Office of Aviation Medicine to improve access to mental health care for air traffic controllers. 

The National Transportation Safety Board investigates incidents and accidents throughout the NAS and has not identified any of the allegations in the Times article as contributing factors in any recent incidents.

NATCA has been at the forefront of establishing processes to enhance safety, including developing and working with the FAA to create a voluntary safety reporting system to identify and address safety concerns before they become systemic. 

The Office of Aviation Medicine is also understaffed and needs additional funding to hire more Human Intervention Motivational Study (HIMS) certified Aviation Medical Examiners to review medical records and ensure that air traffic controllers have a path back to medical clearance once their mental health treatment has been approved and established.

The Times story does, however, paint an accurate picture of the ongoing staffing issues plaguing the NAS and how chronic understaffing leads to fatigue, which introduces unnecessary risk into the system. 

NATCA has been calling the staffing shortage a crisis since at least 2012 in testimony before Congress, in public safety fora, and with the media. We have been imploring the FAA to work with us on the staffing issue, but at every turn, FAA’s Office of Finance and Management (AFN) has put up roadblocks, stifled collaboration between NATCA and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) on staffing and reported to Congress that Agency has enough controllers.

In Dec. 2022, recognizing that controller staffing is a major problem for the FAA, then-Acting Administrator Billy Nolen directed the ATO to restart the Collaborative Resources Workgroup (CRWG) and partner with NATCA to collaboratively determine the number of Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs) needed to meet operational, statutory, and contractual requirements, including resources to develop, evaluate, and implement processes and initiatives affecting the NAS. 

In the weeks that followed, the parties diligently worked with the MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development to develop CPC operational staffing targets at each of FAA’s 313 air traffic control facilities. The CRWG completed its work at the end of January and presented its report to the then-Acting Administrator and NATCA President Rich Santa in mid-February. 

The FAA has not yet adopted the jointly developed CRWG’s CPC targets as the basis for its annual Controller Workforce Plan (CWP) to provide Congress and the aviation industry with a more complete and transparent view of FAA’s operational workforce needs. Instead, it continues to follow the finance-based model that has created this staffing crisis in the first place. 

The Department of Inspector General’s audit this past June found, “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.” 

Last month, the FAA’s independent National Airspace System Safety Review Team reinforced the OIG’s finding when it concluded in its report that under FAA’s most recent CWP submitted to Congress, “when retirements and other attrition is accounted for, the hiring plan produces a negligible improvement over today’s understaffed levels, resulting in a net increase of fewer than 200 air traffic controllers by 2032.”

Thankfully, both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have FAA Reauthorization bills to address the staffing crisis. Both call for the adoption of the CRWG staffing targets in the FAA’s annual CWP. Unfortunately, the FAA has insisted on additional third-party studies as part of that process as another AFN-created roadblock to fixing the problem it has created. 

The House bill (H.R. 3935) also includes maximum hiring of air traffic controller trainees throughout the duration of the bill. NATCA applauds the Senate Commerce Committee for including in the Senate bill (S. 1939) key enhancements to controller training, both by requiring the FAA to have tower simulator systems for each tower and by expansion of the FAA’s training academy capacity, something that serves as a bottleneck in the current hiring and training process.

FAA also must be transparent with its need for increased funding for its Facilities and Equipment budget. Congress has always met the FAA’s stated need. The FAA has consistently requested less than it needs for runways, radar systems, towers, and all other infrastructure. In fact, for the past 15 years, FAA’s budget request to Congress haven’t even adjusted for inflation. This has led to the FAA utilizing a “fix-on-fail” model and the physical deterioration of equipment and facilities.  

NATCA President Rich Santa said, “FAA must share with Congress its true need for both staffing and facilities and equipment so that Congress can meet those needs. Following FAA Finance’s plan to sweep these issues under the rug has only created more problems and made the path to recovery much more difficult.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: 

Galen Munroe, Deputy Director of Public Affairs; 202-220-9802, gmunroe@natca.org.

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The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is a labor union and aviation safety organization in the United States that represents nearly 20,000 highly skilled air traffic controllers, engineers, and other aviation safety-related professionals. NATCA was certified in 1987 by the Federal Labor Relations Authority to be the exclusive bargaining representative for air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Today, NATCA is one of the strongest labor unions in the federal sector and represents a range of aviation safety professionals in 15 FAA bargaining units, five Department of Defense air traffic facilities, and 123 federal contract towers. These air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals make vital contributions to the U.S. economy and make modern life possible by coordinating the safe, orderly, and expeditious movement of one billion aviation passengers and millions of tons of freight within the National Airspace System each year. NATCA is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

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