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NATCA Calls on FAA to Collaborate on Air Traffic Controller Fatigue

Union Warns Agency Unilateral Decision Could Lead to Additional Mandatory Overtime Due to Understaffing and Policy’s Reduced Controller Availability

Although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is encouraged that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has turned its attention to the serious issue of air traffic controller fatigue, our Union is disappointed that the FAA did not collaborate with NATCA in advance of its decision and announcement today. Earlier this morning, FAA first shared a copy of the report with NATCA moments before our Union was briefed on the report and the Administrator’s changes. FAA has not modeled these changes to determine what unintended consequences they may have to the already strained air traffic control staffing coverage.

For more than a decade, NATCA has been sounding the alarm about the FAA’s staffing shortage and the fatigue and stress that places on the hardworking controllers we represent. NATCA is concerned that with an already understaffed controller workforce, immediate application of the Administrator’s new rules may lead to coverage holes in air traffic facilities’ schedules. These holes may affect National Airspace System capacity. Requiring controllers to work mandatory overtime to fill those holes would increase fatigue and make the new policy nothing more than window dressing.

Understaffing currently requires FAA to assign mandatory overtime to controllers, including regular 6-day workweeks, which leads to fatigue. In 2022, controllers at 40% of FAA facilities worked 6-days a week at least once per month. Several facilities required 6-day workweeks every week.

The 2024 schedules were negotiated in late 2023 for each of FAA’s 313 air traffic control facilities. Immediate application of this change would disrupt the lives of controllers who rely upon their year-long schedules for work-life responsibilities. We expect that the FAA will meet its bargaining obligations before implementing any changes.

The FAA employs 10 percent fewer fully certified air traffic controllers today than it did 10 years ago and 25 percent fewer trainees than five years ago. The FAA’s current finance-based staffing plan is not working. In May 2023, Secretary Buttigieg said, “The FAA is about 3,000 air traffic controllers short of target levels.”

Last November, the FAA’s independent National Airspace System Safety Review Team concluded that under FAA’s most recent Controller Workforce Plan 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.”

Last summer, the Department of Transportation Inspector General issued a report that concluded “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 year, FAA met its hiring goals and netted only 15 additional fully certified controllers and 15 additional trainees. FAA Finance’s staffing plan has been in place for more than 15 years. It has led to the current staffing crisis and continuing to follow it will result in more of the same. A new approach is needed.

Congress has a historic opportunity to address this staffing crisis in FAA Reauthorization by ensuring the FAA puts in place a staffing plan that meets the needs of the flying public and all of FAA’s operational, contractual, and statutory requirements, and by requiring the FAA to hire the maximum number of air traffic controller trainees possible for the next five years.

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