Don’t let our air traffic control system become the D.C. Metro of the skies

For Washington, D.C., area residents, it was shocking to hear the U.S. Secretary of Transportation threaten to shut down the region’s Metro subway system. When major portions of our nation’s infrastructure are neglected, it can have devastating impacts. The same is true of the air traffic control (ATC) workforce and the technology they use. Now, imagine the reaction to headlines announcing air travel shutting down due to a shortage of air traffic controllers and system neglect. The U.S. air traffic control system is at a critical juncture. If we don’t act soon, there could be dire consequences.

If Metro officials had kept up with system improvements and proactive maintenance, things would be different. The same holds true for our ATC system, which is operated by the best air traffic controllers and is the world’s safest. However, these first-class professionals are doing more than ever with less, and it would be naïve to think there won’t be long-term consequences as a result.

{mosads}In 2013, sequestration halted air traffic controller hiring for a full year. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was forced to furlough controllers, causing delays throughout the system. FAA leadership had to make decisions to meet the budget restrictions of sequestration, rather than making the correct choices based on operational reasons and safety concerns. Today, the National Airspace System (NAS) has the lowest number of fully certified professional controllers in 27 years. Moreover, the FAA has missed its air traffic controller hiring goals for each of the last seven years and, consequently, staffing has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011. 

The lesson to be learned is that stop-and-go funding slows or halts the hiring and training processes and ultimately leads to staffing shortages. In the three years since the sequestration-caused hiring freeze, our system still has not rebounded. The FAA has fallen behind in recruitment and training and one-quarter of our nation’s certified controllers are currently eligible to retire. Air traffic controllers are working longer and harder than ever to safely handle the growing volume of aircraft arriving at and departing from our nation’s busiest airports. Additionally, controllers at many critical facilities in the NAS are working mandatory six-day workweeks in order to make up for staffing shortages. Over the long-term this leads to significant fatigue. These realities make it clear that that the status quo is not sustainable.

In addition to staffing issues, our current ATC system is running on dated radar technology and data recorded on paper strips that are passed around by hand. Canada, by contrast, has an advanced system. Pilots actually say that passing from our airspace to theirs feels like switching from black-and-white television to modern high-definition color.

This is not to say there haven’t been efforts to improve the U.S. system. The current Administration and Congress have worked collaboratively with NATCA and industry stakeholders and we have made limited progress. Some of the old technology has been phased out, but it was replaced with technology that’s from the 1990’s at best.

When young air traffic controllers who grew up in a high-tech digital world enter the workforce, it’s tough to keep them energized and motivated when they are using technology from the last century. Any high-tech service provider will tell you that you can’t innovate your product and be a leader into the future if you’re not offering your pool of talent state-of-the-art tools.

Those who support the status quo cannot deny these facts. If we don’t take action to fix these problems soon, we will have human capital and infrastructure crises on our hands much bigger in scale than what is happening now with Metro. 

The U.S. is currently tasked with managing ATC operations for certain portions of the international airspace. That decision was made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at a time when we had the most advanced system in the world. As our neighbors continue to beat us in the technology race, ICAO could easily transfer those duties to other nations, costing the U.S. thousands of jobs.

Safety has been and will always be NATCA’s highest priority. We believe it is possible to maintain our impeccable safety record, protect U.S. jobs, and reclaim our global leadership role by giving Americans the world-class air traffic control system they expect for their tax dollars. To achieve these goals Congress must act quickly. Failing to do so is a risk we can’t afford.

Paul Rinaldi is President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA)


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