DOT Warns on ATC Staffing Issues

Controller staffing is at a 27-year low as the FAA grapples with how to ensure there will be enough qualified applicants to replace retirees.

Air Traffic Control
More air traffic controllers are set to retire than there are available to replace them.Mark Brouwer/Creative Commons

The FAA is still struggling to find enough qualified people to staff air traffic control facilities around the country, according to a DOT report released yesterday. Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), called the staffing situation a crisis, claiming controller numbers stand at their lowest level in 27 years.

The DOT’s inspector general said the FAA lacks sufficient data to determine how many controllers the agency needs to effectively manage the National Airspace System, as well as a strategy to ensure there will be enough fully trained controllers in place as the pace of retirements increases. Hindering the agency’s hiring plans was a February 2014 change to a decades-old hiring scheme without a plan in place to manage the new process.

The change meant dropping a long-standing hiring priority for graduates of College Training Initiative (CTI) schools that focused on the subjects applicants were shown to need to successfully complete FAA’s training programs. The hiring process that replaced it now depends upon a controversial biographical assessment the FAA says is a better predictor of future success.

Fully 25 percent of today’s controller workforce is eligible to retire, more than are in the pipeline to replace them. NATCA’s Rinaldi said, “Although NATCA does not believe the safety of the air traffic control system is at risk, without proper staffing at our facilities, efficiency and modernization efforts are being negatively affected, which could lead to further system inefficiencies, delays and a reduction in air traffic services for the flying public.”