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Air traffic controller shortages double training time for hires

An air traffic controller at Kennedy Airport, Jan.

An air traffic controller at Kennedy Airport, Jan. 26, 2012. In 2014, only 1,112 new controllers were hired while 2,982 controllers were eligible to retire, the controllers union said. Credit: Craig Ruttle

A lack of staff to train air traffic controllers means it can take six years — twice the norm — for the new hires to become fully certified at the busiest U.S. control facilities, according to industry experts and government reports.

The training delays come as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association says it faces a 27-year low in the number of certified professional controllers and one-third of its total workforce is eligible to retire.

Many of the new hires who come out of the FAA training academy in Oklahoma City will be on staff at a facility for a year or more before their training even starts, said a source who is familiar with the situation, and can spend years waiting to become fully certified because there are not enough controllers available to train.

“A lot of the time a student will come from Oklahoma City and do absolutely nothing for a year because they can’t get trained,” said the source, who works at a control center in the Northeast. “They’ll show up at work and watch the radar screen, but do absolutely nothing.”

New hires and transfers to new facilities can’t direct planes through air space unsupervised — though they still show up to work each day and are paid as federal employees.

A report published in January by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general that studied air traffic control staffing challenges said training new controllers can take from one to four years at the same facility and often takes double the normal time at the busier facilities. In one example, it took 6.3 years for a trainee to complete training.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it normally takes two to three years to completely train a controller.

The agency did not answer questions for this story but did respond to the January inspector general’s report.

In it, the agency said it would make it easier for controllers to move to facilities that needed staffing help and would centralize hiring decisions “for the greater good of the national aerospace system versus the needs of individual facilities.”

Some of the nation’s busiest centers — like those in New York, Atlanta and Chicago — are understaffed, the inspector general report said, and face a huge wave of potential retirees: 39 percent of controllers at the New York Center in Ronkonkoma and 42 percent at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control center in Westbury are currently eligible to retire, according to the inspector general’s report.

Both centers have fewer controllers on staff than the minimum needed — New York TRACON is working with a 25-year low of 147 fully certified controllers, according to the union. Controllers in Westbury are working mandatory six-day weeks to make up for the shortage, the union said.

The inspector general’s report noted that there were 150 certified controllers at the New York TRACON at the time of its investigation, when the minimum staffing range there is 173.

Because of the critically low staffing at some facilities and the pending retirements, the union said, “The FAA must do more to achieve adequate staffing through the system.”

Aviation industry expert Robert Poole, who has advised the FAA and serves as director of transportation policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation think tank, said the time it takes to train new hires is troublesome.

“The fact that it takes so long suggests that the selection process isn’t as good as it should be,” Poole said. “The total head count is 30 or 35 percent trainees in many facilities. Because they’re trainees, they have to be doing things under supervision, and if there aren’t enough people to supervise, the trainees can only sit there and watch . . . and that’s not what on-the-job training is supposed to be.”

While the controllers union has reassured Congress and the public that the skies are safe, this staffing shortage could lead to delays, NATCA executive vice president Trish Gilbert said in an October plea to Congress to help rectify the staffing shortage.

“The safety of the air traffic control system is not at risk. Air traffic controllers are incredibly resilient,” Gilbert said. “ . . . We have far too few controllers in our towers and radar rooms. If left unaddressed, the situation could result in delays similar to those the country experienced in April 2013, when air traffic controllers were furloughed due to sequestration’s mandatory budget cuts.”

Over seven days of furlough in 2013, Gilbert said there were 12,760 flight delays. For comparison, she said, there were 3,860 delays during the same week in 2014 and 4,919 delays during the same week in 2012.

Poole said the FAA’s new hiring process for controllers, which started in 2014 and puts applicants with aviation degrees or military experience on equal footing as those without prior experience, is potentially worsening the gap in staffing.

Under that procedure, all applicants start by taking a personality test, called the Biographical Questionnaire, that those who have taken it said yields seemingly random results. Applicants pass or fail that test without explanation, and their success on the questionnaire determines whether they can move forward and take the eight-hour-long air traffic standardized aptitude test. If they score well on that exam, they can be considered for the FAA’s academy.

The personality test — which officials have said measures risk tolerance, dependability, cooperation, resilience, stress tolerance and other traits — has been criticized by lawmakers and students who graduated from rigorous air traffic management degree programs only to start on a level playing field as people with no aviation background. The test asks questions about personality, education and high school grades, according to those who have taken it.

“It is not really the most efficient way to solve the problem of the large and growing shortage of fully certified controllers, and that is a major problem, particularly at the largest and busiest TRACONs, towers and centers,” Poole said.

Union leaders, frustrated by the shortage in their ranks, have criticized the new hiring process. After hiring was suspended for 10 months in 2013 because of sequestration and the government shutdown, the FAA wiped out a preferred list of more than 3,000 air traffic control candidates in order to start from scratch with the questionnaire, said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, in front of a congressional roundtable in December.

To manage the retirements expected over the next few years, the FAA said it will publish a bid to hire more controllers this summer, which it has done once a year since 2014. The bid is expected “in the July or August time frame,” an FAA spokeswoman said.

In 2014, only 1,112 new controllers were hired while 2,982 controllers were eligible to retire, the union said. That eligibility figure grew to 3,355 in 2015.

“We have made our concerns clear to the FAA and Congress and we have seen some progress,” the union said in a statement. “However, a fundamental disagreement remains. Trainees are not the same as fully certified controllers. A fully staffed workforce should be fully certified as well.”

Steps to becoming an air traffic controller:

  • Pass biographical questionnaire
  • Pass eight-hour AT-SAT exam
  • Complete 17-week FAA academy
  • Receive on-the-job training
  • Training typically occurs at first facility
  • FAA says it ideally takes 2 to 3 years

Source: FAA

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