Last week saw congressional hearings on the state of the nation’s air traffic controller workforce. U.S. lawmakers were told that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the government agency charged with managing the nation’s skies, has missed its recruitment goals for the last seven years, that the number of certified controllers, namely those able to handle airplanes without a helping hand, has dropped to its lowest level in nearly three decades, and that over one third of the controller workforce is eligible for retirement. The nation has, by one account, a “staffing crises.”

The United States employs over 14,000 air traffic controllers. Countries like Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom employ fewer than 2000. The demand for air traffic service in the U.S. is often used to justify such a wide staffing discrepancy. For example, the number of IFR flights - a regulatory category that includes most commercial air traffic – handled by American controllers topped 15 million in 2011. That’s 11 million more than the Canadians, 12 million more than the Germans and 13 million more than the Brits. Such a feat is undoubtedly impressive considering the tremendous skill, dedication and concentration required to keep those airplanes safe. However, when viewed through the lens of workforce productivity, the picture changes. Whereas an American controller handles on average 1109 flights annually, a Canadian handles 2282, a German 1783 and a Brit 1423.


Of course, numbers can be deceiving. These figures don’t consider regional differences in airspace, general aviation traffic (which is sizable in the U.S.), and the other jobs controllers must perform, like providing classroom instruction to new recruits. These factors all play a role in determining how ‘productive’ a controller is. But this invariably leads to an important question. How many controllers are required to watch the nation’s skies?

Thus far, there have been few answers. According to multiple government audits, the FAA, “does not have the data or an effective model in place to fully and accurately identify how many controllers (it) needs.” The staffing estimates provided so far have been labeled “unreliable.” Moreover, in addition to noting that, “persistent optimism” regarding air travel demand, “brings about a tendency to hire more controllers than required,” the process used by the FAA to calculate staffing has been called “opaque” and open to concerns that it is “arbitrary or inconsistent.”

Hiring the right number of controllers matters. While having too few can compromise safety, having too many burdens the American taxpayer. Controller salaries, which average some $136,000 annually, are among the highest in the federal government, chewing up some 18 percent of the FAA’s budget. Controllers collectively cost the taxpayer nearly $2.8 billion annually, at a time when the national mood favors fiscal restraint. 

Last week’s hearings revealed that 13 major air traffic centers across the nation are experiencing staffing shortages, that controllers in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas are now working mandatory six-day work weeks, and that controller overtime expenditures have increased from 54 million in 2011 to 78 million in 2015. These developments are concerning. Yet the real problem is not that we don’t have enough controllers: rather that we don’t know how many of them we actually need.

Nunes studies population aging, labor markets and technology policy in developed countries. His work has appeared in the American Scientist, the Christian Science Monitor and Aviation Week and Space Technology.