Controller Staffing at a 27-Year Low; Rinaldi Tells House Aviation Subcommittee the Situation is a “Crisis”
WASHINGTON – National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi told the House Aviation Subcommittee today that the number of fully certified air traffic controllers, already at a 27-year low, fell again in the first three months of this year. Rinaldi said the situation has reached a crisis level and outlined several recommendations, including increasing annual hiring totals and passage of bipartisan legislation, H.R. 5292, the Air Traffic Controller Hiring Improvement Act of 2016.
Controller staffing levels have fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has missed its hiring goals in each of the last seven years. In fact, in fiscal year 2015, the FAA fell 24 percent short of its hiring goal. More controllers are eligible to retire today, specifically one-quarter of the workforce, than are in the pipeline to replace them.
“If we do not act decisively and soon, I fear that our nation’s air traffic control system will soon face the same challenges and consequences as D.C.’s Metro system, which has been plagued by deferred maintenance and chronic underfunding,” Rinaldi said in his testimony for the Subcommittee’s hearing, entitled, A Review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Controller Hiring, Staffing, and Training Plans. “Without a stable and predictable funding stream for the National Airspace System (NAS), controller staffing is just the first of many NAS crises that Congress will need to resolve in the near future.”
NATCA believes the FAA must take a holistic, collaborative approach to resolving these staffing issues. Rinaldi said NATCA is committed to working towards permanent, sustainable solutions. He cited budgetary missteps, including stop-and-go funding for the FAA and sequestration in 2013, and the FAA’s bureaucratic red tape as contributing factors in the shortage of air traffic controllers.
“Although NATCA does not believe that 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,” Rinaldi testified.
Rinaldi said the staffing crisis has been the cause of the FAA’s frequent denials to release bargaining unit employees from their facilities’ schedule in order to provide subject matter expertise (SME) for technological and modernization projects throughout the NAS. Within the last three months, the FAA has denied at least 15 separate requests due to staffing. Moreover, attempts to request SME support from facilities that are critically understaffed have ceased. These facilities include Chicago Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), Los Angeles Tower (LAX), Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center, and Atlanta TRACON, among many others. Rinaldi said the expertise of the controller workforce from the busiest facilities on these important projects would facilitate successful development, testing, and implementation on modernization projects.
Among the recommendations Rinaldi proposed in his testimony to address the crisis:
- Passage of H.R. 5292, which would streamline the hiring process by ensuring a path for experienced controllers to be hired quickly and allow military veterans and graduates of schools in the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) to be hired more expeditiously. The legislation, if enacted, would ensure that CTI graduates and veterans are considered in a separate pool from the general public, and would increase the maximum entry age for a controller with 52 weeks experience to 35 years of age.
- Maximizing the capacity of the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. The FAA will only have approximately 1,300 new employees enrolled at the Academy this year. The facility can accommodate up to approximately 2,000 employees per year.
- An FAA controller vacancy announcement for experienced controllers that is open and continuously maintained 365 days per year.
- The aggressive FAA recruitment of experienced former FAA controllers, military and civilian DOD controllers and Federal Contract Tower controllers.
- Stable, predictable funding for the FAA, including ensuring that the FAA is not subject to future sequester cuts.
“I truly believe that the United States has the safest, most complex, and most efficient airspace system in the world, one that is vital to our nation’s economy,” Rinaldi said. “However, this system needs a strong and growing air traffic controller workforce in order to modernize and expand into the 21st Century.”
See the full version of Rinaldi’s written testimony.