Hindered by last winter's 35-day government shutdown, the
FAA has revised downward its projected number of air traffic controller hires
for the 2019 fiscal year by 37%. The big unknown is what impact that will have
on commercial aviation.
While the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union
(Natca) says the FAA now faces a critical shortage of controllers, the agency
insists the staffing level is still more than adequate.
The FAA had anticipated hiring 1,431 controllers during the
fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, but it now projects that it will hire just 907
controllers, according to its annual Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan.
"A lapse in funding in the first quarter of [fiscal
year] 2019 resulted in a partial government shutdown and disruption to the hiring
process," the FAA wrote in the plan, which it quietly released in April. "This
limited our administrative hiring and screening activities, and it caused
current FAA Air Traffic Academy students to retake portions of their training
while delaying start dates for others."
The agency also said that a dearth of well-qualified
applicants as well as a strong hiring result last year contributed to the
lowered forecast for this year. The last time the FAA hired fewer than 1,100
controllers during a fiscal year was in 2013, when federal budget sequestration
forced a nine-month hiring freeze.
Despite the shutdown-related drop in hires this year, the
FAA said that the approximately 14,300 controllers who will either be fully
certified or in training at the end of this year are still more than adequate.
Air traffic peaked in 2000, and despite a slow uptick since 2013, it was still
20% below 2000 levels in 2018.
Natca sharply disagrees with the FAA's assessment. Spokesman
Doug Church said the union believes 12,500 fully certified controllers will be
needed to achieve proper staffing. The present total is around 10,500,
according to Natca, which is more than 1,000 fewer controllers than in 2011.
"Many busy facilities around the country, including
those working traffic at major hubs and busy airspace like Atlanta, New York,
Chicago and Dallas, are so short-staffed that they require controllers to work
six-day weeks," Church wrote in an email. "This has gone on for more
than four years, and it is a major issue of concern."
The FAA did not respond to inquiries for this report. But
according to its Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan, the system overtime
average during the 2018 fiscal year was 3.9%.
The plan does suggest that specific large controller
facilities are light on staff. For example, the FAA has a targeted staffing
range of 154 to 188 controllers for the Northern California Terminal Radar
Approach Control (Tracon), and the agency states that it strives to keep
staffing levels near the middle of its range. But as of the end of the 2018
fiscal year, the facility had 157 certified controllers, near the bottom of the
range. Of those, 25 were certified controllers-in-training.
Similarly, at the New York Tracon, the FAA says its targeted
staffing range is 173 to 212 controllers. As of the end of September the
facility had exactly 173 certified controllers or certified
controllers-in-training. Those staffers were augmented by 36 "developmental
A certified controller-in-training has moved to a new
facility or to a new area within a facility and must be trained for the new
position. Developmental controllers have never been fully certified.
Another facility that is light on staff, according to the
report, is the Central Florida Tracon, where the targeted staffing range is 49
to 60 controllers, but where just 40 certified controllers or certified
controllers-in-training were on staff in late September.
Church also called out several facilities as being
short-staffed even though staffing levels were within the FAA target range at
the end of the last fiscal year. For example, the Houston Tracon had 73
certified controllers and 23 certified controllers in training, placing the
total of 96 near the high end of the FAA's targeted range of 82 to 100
controllers for the facility.
"The staffing crisis is rampant and nationwide and
affects all levels of air traffic control facilities," Church said.
One dynamic the FAA details in the workforce plan is the
dwindling number of retirement-eligible controllers. That number has dropped
steadily since 2015 as an ever-larger portion of the controllers brought on
during a wave of hiring after a 1981 controller strike have left the system.
Just 25 controllers hired before 1984 remained as of last
September, and the agency expects the number of controllers who retire to
continue declining through 2025.
"This clearly demonstrates that the controller
retirement wave is over," the agency wrote in the workforce plan.
Church, however, emphasized that low hiring years like this
one take a long time to overcome. It takes the average trainee three to five
years to get certified, he said.
Meanwhile, the FAA estimates that, because of attrition due
to dropouts and failure to make the grade, 38% of the individuals hired to
begin controller training between this year and 2028 will never obtain
Taxiway technology affected
The slowdown in hiring and training is just one way that
last winter's government shutdown will continue to impact U.S. air traffic
control over a longer time frame.
Natca said another ramification has been that the FAA has
yet to complete systems designed to prevent arriving planes from landing on
occupied taxiways during low-visibility conditions, such as fog.
Prior to the shutdown, the FAA had installed the so-called
Airport Surface Detection Equipment Model-X Taxiway Arrive Prediction alerting
system at five airports. The system is actually an enhancement to one the FAA
has already deployed at 35 airports that alerts of potential runway conflicts.
As many as 13 other airports were slated to get the taxiway
upgrade by the end of December, according to Natca. However, as of the end of
May, none of those 13 airports had received that enhancement, Natca spokesman
Doug Church said.
The FAA did not respond to questions for this report.