The New York Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in 2023 in Westbury....

The New York Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in 2023 in Westbury. The FAA has sent letters to air traffic controllers transferring them to Philadelphia. Credit: Howard Schnapp

From his seat at the Terminal Radar Approach Control building in Westbury, air traffic controller Matthew Ratto regularly works 10-hour shifts six days a week, keeping thousands of passengers safe as he helps guide hundreds of planes into and out of the skies every day.

Overseeing the metropolitan area's airspace, one of the nation’s most complex and congested, was a job he had been vying for since starting at the Federal Aviation Administration in 2009 in Puerto Rico. A third-generation Long Islander, he returned in 2015 and settled in Brightwaters.

Now, three kids later, Ratto finds his nearly 15-year career in flux as the FAA is forcing him and 16 other controllers in Westbury to relocate to another facility in Philadelphia near the end of July.

Despite a $100,000 incentive package, Ratto said moving is out of the question for his family — his wife is a local teacher and his 6-year-old daughter receives services for cerebral palsy.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The FAA is requiring 17 air traffic controllers based out of a Westbury TRACON facility to relocate to Philadelphia near the end of July.
  • According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the 17 controllers, who oversee Newark airspace, do not want to leave Long Island.
  • The FAA said it is necessary to improve operations.

“For me personally, it’s something that will never be able to happen,” Ratto said. “The support system is here. I don’t know how we would make it work.”

It’s not the agency’s first attempt to relocate controllers. Last year, the FAA also tried to push the Westbury-based workers into the Philadelphia facility while attempting to shift the Newark air traffic operations from Westbury. The agency dropped its plans following opposition from workers and elected officials.

In a statement, FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the current move is intended to “improve efficiency and ensure safety in this region.”

New York TRACON in Westbury oversees a busy airspace that includes three major airports, LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark, which are within a 10-mile radius of each other. It's also in charge of several smaller terminals, including Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip and Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

But staffing levels at the Westbury facility, also known as N90, have remained below the national average, causing flight delays, according to the FAA.

The agency continues to catch up as it faces controller shortages nationwide. It's even harder to recruit employees to Long Island, where the cost of living is significantly higher than in other states. Only 32% of people hired at New York's TRACON become fully certified controllers there, compared to the roughly 75% nationally, according to FAA officials.

The FAA's hope is that switching the Newark sector to Philadelphia will reduce delay-inducing staffing triggers at N90.

But the FAA's mandate could backfire, as it also risks losing 17 certified controllers who do not want to relocate.

Joe Segretto, a controller and president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said he is against forcing employees to decide whether to “leave my family and young children on Long Island because my job is forcing me to move, or remain with my family and jeopardize being fired.”

Segretto said the FAA can’t shift the airspace without having certified controllers willing to work there. The FAA plans to move 24 controllers to cover the Newark airspace in Philadelphia, a reduction from the 33 controllers currently running those operations from Westbury. Seven Westbury controllers previously volunteered to relocate. 

It takes 18 months to get certified to oversee that airspace, Segretto said.

Controllers at the Westbury facility sit behind a radar scope to direct the planes. Segretto called the operations in Westbury “highly effective,” and having consolidated operations is important so that “we can communicate by talking to the person sitting right next to us,” Segretto said. 

The union has the support of elected officials, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Anthony D'Esposito (R-Island Park), Nick LaLota ( (R-Amityville), Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) and Thomas R. Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) who in a letter dated May 7 urged the agency "to rescind these reassignments immediately and explore alternative options.”

In the letter, officials called the current change of mind “confusing and outrageous.”

“The compensation package offered as part of the forced reassignment notice shows that the FAA continues to hope money will solve the problem,” the letter states.

But the agency has failed to take into account how people and families will be affected, according to the officials. The group of lawmakers also added that staffing concerns do not justify the move.

Staffing levels of air traffic controllers overseeing Newark are “almost equivalent to the FAA’s national average. Current trainees are being certified quickly and are eager to make their careers” in Westbury, they wrote.

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