The Holiday season is officially here and, as of Black Friday, at full tilt. For many, this time of year is about shopping, giving and good tidings. But, for those of us traveling, the season’s holidays bring a certain level of high anxiety. Travels during the holidays are certainly one of the most frantic times, as the possibility of inclement weather, traffic congestion, high tensions and delays seem to rule the day. While some of this is predictable for the season, for many unhappy travelers there is another potential cause for travel delay that is a little unpredictable. 

The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, has been sweeping under the rug a dirty little secret that could plague travelers for years to come. Internal mismanagement and failure to properly budget its air traffic controller training program has created an impending shortage of qualified air traffic controllers, which will likely increase air passenger delay for years to come. Rather than addressing its own internal inefficiencies accordingly, the agency has proposed scrapping the current air traffic controller training program in favor of a completely new and untested one. 

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The current FAA air traffic controller training program--The Air Traffic Controller Optimum Training Solution (ATCOTS)--has been in place for years, preparing new air traffic controllers and ensuring the integrity of the FAA infrastructure. The ATCOTS program leverages private firms to ensure training standards are at the highest standards and trainers are held accountable. The problem is that we will soon face a massive shortfall in the number of air traffic controllers as current controllers are now required to retire en masse

On August 3, 1981, 7,000 flights were cancelled due to an illegal air traffic controller strike, prompting the Reagan Administration to fire and replace the more than 13,000 air traffic professionals that went on strike. Now, as many of these air traffic controllers reach their mandatory retirement age, the traveling public faces yet another shortage, but this time it was predictable and has gone unaddressed by the FAA. In fact, most experts project a turnover of nearly 15,000 controllers in just the next decade. 

The timing couldn’t be worse, as we’re facing the most flight delays in twenty years and a high number of cancellations. 

The Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General has issued a number of reports on the FAA’s problem recruitment and training practices. The findings include poorly trained staff, poor or non-existent recruitment procedures, and countless other problems. Still the FAA moves at a snail’s pace and with a general lack of foresight. 

To put a finger in the dike, they have also begun a practice which encourages the hire of untrained laypeople, rather than staying with the practice of hiring candidates from certified flight schools and military vets with experience, thereby putting countless lives in jeopardy and causing the sort of inefficiencies that lead to delays for holiday travelers. 

At a time when we are facing an impending shortage of air traffic controllers, the FAA should reinvest in a proven training program and fixing its internal problems, not proposing a complete overhaul. The ATCOTS program, with proper oversight and funding, will put the US in a secure position for decades to come. Newly trained controllers will be held to a high standard and the efficiencies we gain from the program will help to reduce the problems that consumers see every day in a crumbling air travel infrastructure. 

By all means, the FAA needs to return to its previous practice of recruiting the most qualified candidates from flight schools and the military. Should the FAA decide to proceed with its proposal, the shear costs of flight delays on the general public and airlines will be immense. 

Public safety should never be compromised. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d feel a lot safer (and a lot less stressed) this holiday season if my flight were on time and handled by adequately trained staff. 

Christenson writes for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.