Aviation Drop in number of controllers fueling debate on privatizing air traffic system By Robert Silk / October 26, 2015 Share 1 Photo Credit: Shutterstock -- The fact that the number of U.S. air traffic controllers has been diminishing is adding fuel to the debate about whether the country’s air traffic control (ATC) system should be privatized after years of being a political football.Earlier this month, the labor union National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) called for a congressional hearing on staffing numbers, which have dropped nearly 10% since 2011. As of August, the union said, there were fewer than 10,900 certified staffers at the 316 ATC centers in the U.S., the lowest in 27 years.So far, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has not announced whether it will hold such a hearing. All that Jim Billimoria, the committee’s communications director, would say in an email was that ATC staffing levels were “an issue the committee has followed, and we will continue to look into the matter.”While Natca has not taken a public stand on proposals that the system be privatized, the alarm it raised with its call for a hearing did get the attention of Airlines for America (A4A), the country’s largest airline trade organization, as well as the U.S. Travel Association. Both of those entities have backed a proposal by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) to remove air traffic control from the purview of the FAA and thus from the whims of the heavily politicized appropriations process in Congress.“Frankly, I think the fact that they’ve missed their hiring goals the last three years in a row is not a good sign,” A4A Senior Vice President Sharon Pinkerton said in an interview last week. “If there is a silver lining on this, I do think this could be a catalyst for [Air Traffic Control] reform.”Lorraine Howerton, U.S. Travel’s senior director of government relations, was also critical of the FAA in a written statement.“It is disappointing,” she wrote, “that on top of the uncertainty of federal aviation funding, we are now hearing that the FAA has not taken the steps to ensure that we do not have gaps in controller training and staffing.”Their comments came at a time when the FAA is being funded under temporary legislation that is set to expire in March. The most recent comprehensive FAA authorization bill expired in September, and if history is an indicator, the current temporary funding bill won’t be the last in this cycle. It took 23 short-term FAA operating extensions over the course of five years before that last authorization finally became law in 2012.Shuster, along with A4A, has proposed turning the responsibility of running the U.S. air traffic control network to a nonprofit corporation that would be created for that purpose.The model he proposes is similar to the system used in Canada, where air traffic control is run by the nonprofit Nav Canada. Such a corporation would have its own funding sources, thereby freeing air traffic control from partisan fighting over budgets and threats of government shutdowns. Shuster has also argued that the nonprofit model would speed development of NextGen, the GPS-based air traffic control technology that is supposed to replace the radar-based system currently used in the U.S. today.The Canadian model was among four foreign air traffic control systems that auditors analyzed in a report issued by the Office of Inspector General in September. Auditors also reviewed the systems in Germany, France and the U.K., each of which, unlike the U.S., has commercialized air traffic control and separated it from the government agency that oversees air safety.In the four countries, the report said, safety in the skies was not compromised when air traffic control was either privatized or, in the case of France, separated out as its own governmental entity. However, none of the organizations has undertaken major modernization efforts comparable to NextGen. Instead, it said, “they deploy new technologies incrementally and try to install technology that meets their operational needs.”Auditors noted that separating air traffic control from the FAA would require the resolution of several financial issues, including determining the value of assets to be transferred to the new entity. They also noted that Canada, Germany, France and the U.K. each is responsible for controlling less than half the airspace of the U.S. and have far less complicated air transportation systems.While Natca has not endorsed the idea of privatizing air traffic control, neither has it opposed it, saying only that the details would determine whether if would be viable. Shuster has not put forward the legislation but he is expected to do so sometime before the end of March as part of the FAA reauthorization bill.Meanwhile, neither Natca, nor anyone else, is suggesting that the ATC staffing shortage currently presents a safety issue or will lead to flight delays in the near future.Still, said Trish Gilbert, Natca’s executive vice president, especially acute shortages at some of the nation’s busiest air traffic control centers, including ones in New York, Atlanta and Dallas, have led to mandatory six-day work weeks, which in turn have led to more people opting to retire.“Chronic fatigue is a concern,” Gilbert said.As of late August, 11 months into the fiscal year, the FAA had hired 1,178 of the 1,772 controllers it had planned to recruit in 2015.The FAA did not respond to calls or email for this report, but in a statement provided to media outlets earlier this month, the agency said that the fall 2013 government shutdown as well as the sequester had hurt its recruiting efforts.“The FAA shares Natca’s frustration with air traffic controller staffing levels,” the agency said. “The past government shutdown and budget cuts closed the FAA’s controller training academy for nine months, delaying initial training for several classes of new air traffic controllers. As a result, the FAA has been working hard to hire at an increased rate to meet its air traffic controller staffing targets.”The agency’s 10-year air traffic controller workforce plan, which was published in March, paints a rosier picture, however. Noting that U.S. air traffic has declined 24% since peaking in 2000, the plan posits that staffing today is still ahead of air traffic needs.Gilbert, though, pointed out that air traffic is just one factor in determining how many controllers are needed. More important, she said, is the amount of airspace that must be covered, which has not changed.Judson Rollins, who writes a highly regarded blog about airline issues, said that if the trend of decline in the number of air traffic control staff isn’t reversed, shortage-driven flight delays could become an issue in the next three to five years.One way to relieve the overtaxed air traffic controller workforce would be to expedite NextGen implementation, he said, thereby allowing for more air traffic without a proportional staffing increase.But Gilbert said the staffing shortfall has played into the sluggish pace of the NextGen project, since experienced controllers don’t have the freedom to be pulled from their normal tasks to help with lab work and technology development.