Union and FAA at odds over effect of fewer air traffic controller hires

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Photo Credit: Ersin Ergin/Shutterstock

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 controllers."

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 certification.

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.

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