Out of Control Policy Blog

Air Traffic Controllers - Too Many or Too Few?

Until recently, the frequent refrain coming from controllers' union NATCA was that the FAA was failing to recruit and train enough new controllers to replace the coming wave of retirements of controllers hired after President Reagan's mass firing of striking controllers in 1981. But now that the agency has massively expanded hiring and training, today's complaint is that operational facilities-centers, TRACONs, and towers-are being overwhelmed with developmental controllers, to the point where needed on-the-job training cannot be fully accommodated.

The House Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing on this subject on June 11th, and I've reviewed the testimony of both the GAO and the DOT Inspector General's Office. Both agreed that the FAA has stepped up hiring and taken other useful actions, but both suggested that some facilities do appear to have more developmental controllers than is wise. Let's go to the numbers.

First, the GAO reports the good news that, when it comes to comparing the number of controllers at a facility with what it "should" have, we are no longer trapped by the 1990s-era negotiated staffing levels, based on bargaining between FAA and NATCA. In 2007, the FAA replaced that with facility-specific staffing ranges based on a combination of traffic levels, productivity trends, expected retirements, and controllers in training. As of April 2008, GAO found that 45% of the 314 facilities are not within the desired ranges-but the vast majorities of these cases are above the staffing range (145 facilities) while only 12 are below. That's the good news.

The bad news is that while there are slightly more total controllers on the payroll today (December 2007) than in 2004, the IG finds the overall percentage of trainees has increased from 15.2% of the workforce to 24.5%. Overall, FAA says that each facility should be able to have up to 35% trainees and still control its traffic properly. Even if that percentage is valid (and the IG found a number of people who think it's too high), FAA figures show that 70 out of 314 facilities exceed that percentage today, compared with only 22 in 2004. And some of these are very busy places: Teterboro tower (52% trainees), Las Vegas TRACON (50% trainees), and Oakland center (38% trainees). A table in the GAO testimony is more reassuring as to towers, listing 50 of the country's busiest airports. Only five of these exceeded the 35% trainee figure-Tampa, Cleveland, DFW, LaGuardia, and Houston Hobby. The majority are in the 10-25% trainee range.

Still, the fraction of trainees is likely to continue creeping upward over the next five years, as retirements continue and the pace of training is constrained by the amount of time fully certified controllers have available, as well as the physical space for training at some facilities (e.g., Miami Center). GAO cites FAA data to estimate that by 2011 up to 59% of the controller workforce will have less than five years of experience (compared with about 25% today).

FAA is offering bonuses to controllers eligible to retire to stay on for several more years, which may help. It is also installing high-fidelity training simulators at busy airport towers; NASA Ames has found that use of such a simulator reduced training days for ground control training by 60% at Miami Tower. And it is under strong pressure from NATCA and Congress to re-open the current contract to restore some of the premium pay controllers no longer get. For its part, NATCA should be willing to ditch the controller-favored 2-2-1 shift schedule which researchers have found contributes significantly to controller fatigue, due to disruption of diurnal rhythms. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, about 61% of controllers work such shifts, which give them a longer weekend and no more than one midnight shift per week.

In addition, I wonder if Pat Forrey and other NATCA leaders have thought about the implications of their encouraging eligible controllers to retire, thereby increasing the pressure on the FAA. As noted above, that means in a mere three years' time (2011), nearly 60% of the controller workforce will have less than five years' experience. That means less than five years of absorbing the NATCA culture, at a time when air traffic control will be fundamentally changing to the partially automated NextGen paradigm. You would have thought NATCA would put a premium on keeping as many of the old guard on the job as possible, in hopes of teaching the new guys the "us versus them" way of relating to the FAA. Such wholesale turnover gives Hank Krakowski and his team at the Air Traffic Organization a better opportunity to break this mindset and develop a healthier relationship with their controller workforce.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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