Our nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system relies on a well-trained, highly qualified workforce. Air traffic controllers must work rapidly and efficiently under tremendous stress while maintaining complete concentration. Controllers guide 70,000 flights a day in the U.S. while ensuring that 736 million passengers a year arrive at their destinations safely.
Unfortunately, budgetary missteps and bureaucratic red tape have led to a shortage of controllers. What has been a concern for many years has now reached a crisis level. The nation’s ATC system has the fewest Certified Professional Controllers – 10,667 - in nearly three decades. Controller staffing has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has missed its hiring goals for the last seven years, and there are currently more controllers eligible to retire today than are currently in the pipeline to replace them. Significant changes are needed immediately.
The process to become an air traffic controller isn’t an easy one. Controllersundergo rigorous and thorough training, beginning with two-to-five months at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. Upon graduation, trainees are assigned as developmental controllers at an air traffic control facility. They must complete several stages of additional training before full certification. The total process can take two-to-four years. Controllers must be hired by the FAA before their 31st birthday and retire by age 56.
A steady flow of qualified candidates is needed to keep the system properly staffed. Following automatic spending cuts imposed through a process known as sequestration, the FAA instituted a hiring freeze and shuttered the FAA Academy between March and December 2013. Even hiring the maximum number of controllers that could be trained in 2015 and 2016 could not make up the gap created by the freeze. New hires still require between two and four years of training to become fully certified. Only CPCs can do the training. This training often takes these full-fledged controllers away from their primary job of guiding traffic. Facilities that are already at critically low staffing levels (defined as requiring overtime and six-day work weeks to fully staff all positions) are facing dire situations as controllers are expected to do more with less.
As a result, the FAA can’t adequately staff many facilities in the near term. If the staffing crisis remains unaddressed, the FAA will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity – meaning the same number of flights each day – let alone expand and modernize the ATC system. The deployment of NextGen programs, procedures, and equipment to upgrade the ATC system will increase capacity and efficiency in our nation’s airspace. Unfortunately, a lack of adequately trained controllers is preventing these upgrades from being implemented in a timely manner.
There are other concerns as well. In some understaffed facilities, controllers must work overtime to provide adequate coverage. Some facilities lack sufficient staffing — even with overtime — to meet basic needs. Controllers are sometimes asked to work additional days. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, extended workdays and workweeks have led to significant fatigue problems. This has made fatigue one of the agency’s highest priority safety concerns.
Despite NATCA’s consistent appeals, the FAA has made limited progress to address controller staffing shortages. For example, after working collaboratively with NATCA, the FAA has implemented a policy for certified controllers to more expeditiously transfer to facilities with the greatest staffing needs. But NATCA believes the FAA must take a more holistic, collaborative approach to resolving staffing shortfalls. Specifically, the FAA should post an open and continuous vacancy announcement for experienced air traffic controllers. The FAA must also streamline the hiring process and ease the bottlenecks and bureaucratic delays that have made it harder for qualified individuals to be hired.
Thankfully, bipartisan legislation was recently introduced in the House of Representatives that, if enacted, would help ease the ATC hiring crisis. H.R. 5292, The Air Traffic Control Hiring Improvement Act of 2016, would streamline the hiring process and allow military veterans and graduates of the Collegiate Training Initiative to be hired more expeditiously without causing any additional delays in the hiring process. These candidates typically have more experience than others and can be placed in higher traffic facilities with a greater chance of success. These are common sense reforms that would make a real difference and benefit the entire NAS. The House Transportation Committee is also examining the issue in an upcoming hearing.
Our nation’s economy needs a vibrant, modern, and growing national airspace and that requires a strong and growing air traffic controller workforce. It is incumbent upon the FAA to fix the process quickly and ensure that our nation’s air traffic control towers and centers are fully staffed.
Gilbert is NATCA executive vice president.