Air Traffic Controller Staffing
Air traffic controller staffing at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been a concern for years, but it has now reached a crisis level. The National Airspace System has reached a 27-year low for staffing of Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs). Meanwhile, the FAA has missed its hiring goals in each of the last seven years. With one quarter of the workforce eligible to retire and not enough controllers in the pipeline to replace them, the staffing crisis poses an immediate challenge to our workforce and is currently NATCA’s priority.
One bit of good news came on July 15 when the President signed an extension to current FAA authorization. The extension addresses the controller staffing crisis, including language that will streamline the hiring process by allowing experienced controllers, military veterans, and graduates of schools in the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) to be hired more expeditiously. CTI graduates and veterans will be considered in a separate pool from the general public. The extension will also increase the maximum entry age for a controller with 52 weeks experience to 35 years of age.
The language is nearly identical to that contained in H.R. 5292, the Air Traffic Controller Hiring Improvement Act of 2016, sponsored by Congressmen Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., and Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., that was introduced just before NATCA in Washington attendees arrived on Capitol Hill in May.
FAA Reauthorization and Stable, Predictable Funding
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NATCA is heavily focused on working with Congress on a full, long-term FAA reauthorization with stable, predictable funding that ends both sequestration and the stop-and-go funding that has harmed the National Airspace System (NAS). The latest 14-month extension to the current FAA authorization, enacted in 2012, is set to expire Sept. 30, 2017.
Sequestration is a process that automatically cuts the federal budget across most federal departments and agencies. Congress initially included the threat of sequestration in the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a way to encourage compromise on deficit reduction efforts. Congress was unable to agree on a budget by the deadline set in the Budget Control Act, so mandatory budget cuts were scheduled to go into effect on January 2, 2013.
In March 2013, sequestration cuts forced the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which funds the National Airspace System (NAS), to cut a total of $492.9 million from its Operations budget, which pays the air traffic controller workforce. This mandatory cut made it necessary for the FAA to furlough air traffic controllers, which led to one week of severe air traffic delays. As a result of NATCA’s work with lawmakers and allies, Congress passed a law that ended furloughs for FAA employees. However, this law was only valid through the end of September 2013, and after two years of postponed cuts, sequestration is now again in play for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017. In addition to the furloughs and flight delays, sequestration also forced the FAA to consider closing low-volume towers. Additionally, the FAA Academy was closed for most of 2013, meaning it was unable to hire new trainees. This hiring freeze worsened an already critical air traffic control staffing situation.
If sequestration cuts continue for FY16, all indications are that the budget cuts to the FAA will be much higher than the proposed cuts in 2013. NATCA has been working with Congress, the Administration, and policy allies reminding all that the FAA must be properly funded in order to maintain the safety and efficiency of our airspace.
Federal Government Budget
Congress funds the federal government in one-year increments through funding bills that have been held up by partisan debates in the past few years. In October 2013, the U.S. Congress failed to pass a funding bill and the government shut down for sixteen days. Congress finally passed a continuing resolution to fund the government at its current level through January 2014 and then passed an “omnibus” spending bill for FY14. FY15 was partially funded by another continuing resolution that expired on December 11, 2014. The FAA cannot continue to increase the safety and efficiency of our airspace if they cannot depend on a stable funding stream. NATCA’s goal is to return to regular order and pass annual budgets and appropriations bills without resorting to short term funding legislation prevents the FAA from being able to make and carry out long term projects. NATCA will continue to work closely with Congress on the proper funding of the FAA.
Attack on Federal Employees and Unions
In recent years, Congress has been proposing legislation that would harm federal employees by increasing the amount they pay into their retirement funds, and increasing health care contributions. This follows a trend in states across the country, where protections guaranteeing collective bargaining rights are being eroded for public employees. This year, that trend in Congress has continued, as there have already been calls for significant increases to federal employee retirement contributions, changes to the calculations, reduced benefits for those already retired, as well as proposed hiring freezes and pay cuts.