The president of the air traffic controllers union sat down with federal lawmakers on Tuesday and urged them to help fix a staffing shortage he said has reached “crisis level.”
The number of air traffic controllers nationwide has fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011, National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi said at a round-table discussion on the Federal Aviation Administration’s controller hiring, staffing and training plans, hosted by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.
“I’ve said it repeatedly over the past few years: The status quo is unacceptable,” Rinaldi said in prepared remarks. “With one-third of our workforce eligible to retire, the FAA’s bureaucratic structure is failing us. ... If this situation continues unaddressed, we will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity, let alone expand and modernize the system.”
The staffing shortage has hit hard at the FAA’s Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, facilities — especially the nation’s busiest, including New York TRACON in Westbury, and those in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth. These facilities handle air traffic between 3 and 40 miles from an airport during climb and approach flight phases, according to NATCA.
The New York TRACON is facing a 25-year low of 147 fully certified controllers, which the union said is 35 percent fewer than what’s needed. Here, there are 10 percent fewer controllers than 2011, and 32 percent fewer than 2004. Controllers are working six-day weeks to make up for staffing shortages, and 46 percent are eligible to retire. The FAA’s mandatory retirement age for controllers is 56, and the agency won’t hire new controllers older than 31, which eliminates many air traffic controllers leaving the military.
Rinaldi cited the sequestration and government shutdown in 2013 as a major road bump. Hiring was suspended for 10 months, and after it started again, new requirements wiped out a list of 3,000 potential candidates, Rinaldi said.
Also Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the effect of years of budget uncertainty on the FAA’s normal operations, and its implementation of NextGen, a state-of-the-art air traffic control system that will replace radar-based, World War II-era technology with the use of satellites.
The report showed that sequestration-related air traffic control furloughs during a week in April 2013 led to 7,099 flight delays, and new hires in fiscal year 2013 “totaled 554, a deficit of 761 new controllers when compared to the agency’s planned 1,315 new hires for that year.”
To help staffing levels rebound, Rinaldi said the FAA should post a continuous vacancy announcement for experienced air traffic controllers and streamline hiring to ease bureaucratic and human resources delays. He also suggested speeding up the transfer policy for controllers who want to move up to busier, more complex facilities, where many more are needed.