The 2023 application window for entry-level air traffic controllers will open May 5-8 as the FAA grapples with staffing shortages across the nation.
The agency plans to hire roughly 1,500 controllers this year, and another 1,800 next year as it is catching up on pandemic-related training backlogs—a significant cause of the staffing shortage. According to the National Air Traffic Controller Association (NATCA), staffing levels are at a 30-year low, while two in 10 air traffic controller positions remain unfilled nationwide.
Aspiring controllers need to meet eligibility requirements including: being a U.S. citizen, younger than 31 before the closing date of the application, have either three years of general work experience or four years of education leading to a bachelor’s degree, or a combination of both, speak clear English, and be willing to relocate to an FAA facility based on staffing needs.
Part of the problem is that air traffic controller is a specialized position and is not necessarily a career choice that many people seek as it can be ambiguous how to enter the civilian ATC ranks.
According to the FAA, entry-level applicants must complete required training courses and spend several months at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. Once they graduate, individuals are placed in locations across the country and must gain one to three years of on-the-job experience before becoming a certified professional controller.
Initial pay for novice ATCs is a minimum annual wage of $43,727 plus locality pay for the facility assigned to them. As they gain experience, salaries will increase based on factors such as location and complexity of the airspace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average wage for an air traffic controller is $120,830—well above the average salary for all occupations. Additionally, as federal employees, controllers enjoy a generous benefits package—well above what is offered in the private sector.
In the meantime, ATC shortages have contributed to several delays and recent close calls, which have prompted the FAA to lay out guidelines reinforcing safety protocols such as more supervisor oversight and extra controller training for “unusual circumstances.”
Tim Arel, chief operating officer of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, said, “Our dedication to continuous improvement demands that we dig deep to identify the underlying factors and address them. With the summer travel season just around the corner, airlines and the traveling public have high expectations.”
The FAA has already asked airlines to reduce the number of flights into New York area airports as its Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility is only operating at 54 percent of its staffing target. The agency warned overall delays in the region could increase by 45 percent during the 2023 summer season.
JetBlue, which operates 60 percent of its flight schedule out of New York said, “While it is disappointing to reduce flights for customers as they plan their summer holidays and as New York City works to rebound from the pandemic, we are pleased the leadership team at the FAA is proactively working to get in front of this and is being transparent about the staffing shortages. With these challenges out in the open, the industry and government can collaborate on necessary steps to reduce disruption to summer travel and solve the staffing shortages.”
The FAA continues to work closely with NATCA and industry stakeholders on a permanent fix to understaffing issues.