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Turnover among controllers buffets U.S. aviation

Thousands of air traffic controllers hired after the 1981 strike are reaching retirement age, creating a significant shortage of experienced controllers.
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About a week and a half ago, the Federal Aviation Administration closed the air space over Raleigh-Durham International Airport and several other corridors above North Carolina. For about 28 minutes on the afternoon of June 19, all flights were halted over much of the eastern half of the state.

Skies over the region were cloudy, but there was little wind and no hint of rain, and visibility was good. No emergency was reported; no special VIP aircraft was coming through; no threat had been registered.

The reason for the shutdown, it turned out, was earthbound. The lone air traffic controller on duty for the area had been working two people’s jobs for more than eight hours, and he or she finally had to go to the bathroom and get something to eat, the air traffic controllers’ union claimed. It said takeoffs from Raleigh-Durham were delayed, while flights already in the air had to be redirected.

Tammy Jones, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, confirmed the shutdown but said no flights were delayed and no planes were placed in any danger. Four controllers at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., the radar facility that handles flights over North Carolina and four other states, had been unable to come in, probably because of illness, and for a brief period, she said, no substitute was on hand. A second controller was quickly called in, she said.

Federal aviation records indicate — and the controllers union agrees — that staffing-related shutdowns like the one at Washington Center are extremely rare. But Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, maintained that the so-called ATC-0 incident over North Carolina was symptomatic of a larger staffing crisis at the FAA.

NATCA is locked in a contract dispute with the FAA, which imposed its own work rules and froze controllers’ salaries in 2006, so it has an interest in criticizing the agency’s management. But federal records indicate it has a good case.

Turnover in airport towers and at regional radar facilities and flight service centers is so rapid that experienced controllers are leaving faster than their replacements can be hired and certified. That means controllers still in training are often guiding planes on takeoff, in the air and on landing.

Meanwhile, a satellite-based air traffic management system, designed to automate more efficient flight paths, remains years off, even as current facilities are reaching and surpassing their expected useful lifespans.

‘Trainees’ can be highly experiencedAccording to staffing records of the FAA and the Transportation Department, its parent agency, nearly 4,000 air traffic controllers in training were on the job at the beginning of the year without having completed full certification. That’s about 27 percent of a current professional staff handling the 50,000 or so flights that travel the nation’s skies each day.

By itself, that figure isn’t unusual; in fact, it’s below the FAA’s own ceiling of 35 percent. Air traffic controllers complete their training on the job, so trainees are always going to make up a significant proportion of the working staff.

“The only alternative is to not replace controllers who retire, and that simply is not an option,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA.  

Controllers in training aren’t necessarily inexperienced controllers. They can be veteran controllers who are simply learning the specifics of new assignments: retired military controllers, certified controllers who have transferred from other facilities or retired FAA controllers working as contractors.

But the clear majority of the trainees in the FAA’s recent hiring wave are new to the profession. The FAA is hiring so quickly that “developmental controllers” — those with no previous experience — make up about two-thirds of those in training and slightly less than a fifth of all federal air traffic controllers.

“It’s a dangerous circumstance that we just need to address,” said Dean Headley, co-author of the closely watched Airline Quality Rating, an annual survey of aviation performance by Wichita State University and Saint Louis University.

Gregor acknowledged that “we currently do have a higher percentage of developmentals in our facilities than we have had in recent years,” but he said the agency’s training programs “are set up to maximize quality training, both in the classroom and on the job.” 

Addressing the PATCO EffectMore than 8,700 air traffic controllers were hired after President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association in 1981.

In what’s commonly called the PATCO Effect, the first big wave of post-PATCO controllers began hitting the retirement age of 56 in fiscal year 2007. More than 820 controllers retired, 29 percent more than the agency had projected.

The FAA’s controller workforce plan says nearly 5,000 more will be eligible to retire in the next two years.

As the experienced workers have departed, the FAA has gone on a hiring spree, with an eye toward taking on about 15,000 new controllers by 2017.

The FAA hired 2,196 controllers in fiscal 2008, its records show. Only 720 had previous experience in the military or at other FAA facilities. The rest, 67.3 percent, were developmental controllers.

The FAA said developmental controllers were closely supervised by fully certified controllers and were never assigned duties for which they weren’t qualified. FAA Administrator Randolph Babbitt told Congress this month that the agency always made sure that “the right number of trained controllers are in the right place at the right time.”

But Forrey, the president of the controllers union, said the FAA was “jamming the system with a bunch of trainees.”

“It means that there’s a whole lot less experience going on out there working the airplane,” he said.

Busiest radar site could be overwhelmedThe level of inexperience is “particularly critical” at the Southern California radar facility in San Diego, or SCT, the nation’s busiest radar control center, the Transportation Department’s inspector general reported in April.

Because of new hires, there is no official staffing shortage at SCT, where the overall number of controllers has held steady. But the number of those controllers who are fully certified has plummeted — from 236 in 2004 to 161 in January, the end of the study period. Seventy-six controllers were working without full certification. And 52 of them — or 68 percent — were new trainees with no previous certification, the report said.

By the end of this year, controllers still in some stage of training will make up more than 40 percent of the site’s active staff, the inspector general projected, which could “overwhelm the facility’s training resources.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the certification pace was unacceptable. Because STC “handles some of the most complex airspace in the United States,” she insisted in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, it “should be staffed with our most experienced controllers, not more than 100 controllers who are yet to receive full certification.”

Nationwide, the inspector general warned, the FAA should be able to maintain staffing levels but not the experience quotient, concluding that the agency “faces an increasing risk of not having enough fully certified controllers in its workforce.”

FAA juggles new system with old needsThe FAA is in the early stages of a long-term plan to move many of its traffic control operations from ground-based radar to a satellite tracking system dubbed Next Generation, or NextGen.

Radar signals become less reliable over longer distances, which means controllers have to keep planes at the same altitude at least 5 miles apart for safety. NextGen is designed to take much of the physical tracking of flights off the shoulders of controllers, exploiting the accuracy of satellite positioning to allow planes to fly nearer each other, thereby cutting delays and cancellations.

“You fly closer together, both vertically and horizontally,” said Headley, co-author of the annual aviation ratings. “You have more direct flights. You save fuel. You save time. Everything’s simpler.”

NextGen is a sprawling program involving billions of dollars in federal-private cooperative ventures, research, software development and workforce upheavals, and after four years, it remains largely in the planning stages.

In a report to Congress in March, the Transportation Department said the FAA had fallen behind on laying out clear priorities for NextGen. In May, Congress approved a multi-year FAA funding bill that significantly increases NextGen resources and oversight.

Jones of the FAA said the agency was already “taking incremental steps now that will lead us to full implementation” of the NextGen system and that “at some airports, we are using procedures and technology that are helping us gain efficiency right now.” 

In November, the agency approved construction of the first 11 ground stations in what eventually will be a network of nearly 800 facilities relaying real-time satellite data on air traffic and weather, as well as terrain in some areas, like mountainous regions, that can interfere with today’s radar system. “NextGen is now,” the agency said at the time.

Still, NextGen isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2025. While it makes progress on the new system, the FAA must also maintain its current facilities, 59 percent of which have passed their projected useful lives of 30 years. Trying to do both is an expensive logistical prospect.

Other efficiencies disputedSo at the same time that it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year developing NextGen, the FAA is trying to squeeze more efficiency out of its current system:

  • One of the measures is a controversial program to split the duties of controllers at airports so they work either the radar facility or the control tower, but not both. That’s how it’s worked at some airports for years, but the FAA didn’t implement the policy nationwide until January. With fewer work stations to master, controllers should be able to certify at a faster pace. But it also means the FAA needs more controllers, because not all of them will be able to work all stations.
  • The agency is consolidating traffic control systems at some major facilities, including Washington Center, where this month’s shutdown occurred. In the last two years, Washington Center’s “airspace boundaries” have broadened — in other words, the total airspace controlled by the facility, which used to be spread over eight regions, is now divided into seven larger regions, meaning an individual controller has a bigger area to keep track of.
  • And it hopes to centralize weather forecasting offices now spread across 20 regional traffic centers into two locations. The FAA says the consolidation, which it will test in a nine-month trial before making a final decision, should provide more consistent information to en-route controllers. But controllers said they feared they would lose valuable time placing calls to a central site for weather advice rather than consulting on-site meteorologists, as they do now.

Jones, the FAA spokeswoman, insisted that the agency’s priority was safety and said all systems went through rigorous testing and checks before being used in directing air traffic.

Recession gives FAA an openingFederal officials, the controllers union and independent experts all say the FAA has a window of opportunity to make more rapid advances during the recession. Airlines cut more than 8 percent of their flight volume last year, taking some of the load off the system.

“What’s saving us is traffic is down from economy,” said Forrey of the controllers union. “This is the 21st century, and we need to get this technology into the 21st century.”

Headley, the man behind the annual aviation ratings, said getting NextGen off the ground sooner would inconvenience fewer fliers and allow airlines and passengers to start seeing the benefits earlier.

“We’re kind of at a lull in the action, so to speak,” said Headley, who projected that the number of passenger flights would fall by 8 percent to 9 percent more this year, to its lowest level since 2001.  “It’s time to take a hard look at that and try things out as quickly as possible.”

The Transportation Department agrees. LaHood, the new transportation secretary, says NextGen is one of the department’s top priorities. It should be, the department’s inspector general said in a report in April that urged the FAA to “move beyond planning and advance NextGen.”

“It needs to get better,” Headley said. Otherwise, he warned, as current facilities age and the FAA falls behind in certifying controllers, “something bad is going to happen.”