Air Traffic Control Shortages and the Need for Reform

Earlier this month, regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed to extend a limited waiver on minimum usage requirements for slots used by airlines at New York and Washington, DC area airports. The move from the FAA comes after requests from airlines in March to extend the waiver to October, in part due to shortages in air traffic control (ATC) staff. The issue is pervasive and with a reduced number of controllers, the ability of the FAA to regulate and maintain airspace and airport operations is limited, hence the push to provide relief to airlines.

In the airline industry, the trends suggest an increase in passenger volume and number of aircraft. Additionally,  airlines are increasingly engaging in “domestic upgauging,” which according to research from the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), is the practice of “increasing capacity by adding seats to existing aircraft and using larger aircraft in place of smaller ones.” This serves to alleviate pressure on airlines, by allowing more seats and less need for more aircraft. This is especially true in the New York area, which is heavily congested with flights from JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty. Commercial airlines have also seen an increase in their workforce, to around 500,000 employees, the largest workforce in the airline industry since 2001. This contrasts with the staffing shortage at the FAA, which is understaffed by 3,000 people.

Given these trends, the FAA’s decision to extend the waiver on minimum slot usage requirements can be seen as a move to address operating concerns at critical facilities like New York-area airports due to ATC staff shortages. Moreover, the FAA had plans to transfer responsibility of a portion of Newark airspace from the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) to the Philadelphia TRACON to further alleviate stress on the short-staffed control towers at New York- area airports.  The northeast corridor sees heavy airline traffic, and with the increases in travel, a limited number of ATC staff handicaps the FAA’s ability to maintain effective operations. As a mitigating strategy, the current policy decision may work, but only temporarily.

An audit from the USDOT Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in June explored the staffing shortage issue, citing limited action from the FAA in addressing the shortage and current challenges the agency faces surrounding the staff shortages. The audit highlighted issues that explain why staff shortages continue to persist in the agency:

In 2012, the Collaborative Resource Workgroup, established by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) was tasked to review the FAA’s model of placing air traffic controllers across the country. They found a need to develop a change in how air traffic controllers are distributed across facilities, which they noted would require a “long timeframe.”

In 2014, the FAA and NATCA developed interim staffing levels, that would be replaced with a long-term plan. The audit found that such a comprehensive plan has not been completed, citing disagreements between the Air Traffic Organization, Office of Labor Analysis, and NATCA over “availability factors.” According to the FAA, the availability factor “accounts for time controllers can’t cover traffic demand,” due to leave, training or additional off-site activities. Disagreements between organizations and within the FAA itself over appropriate staffing levels without reconciliation limit the ability for the FAA to implement a change in its workforce plan.

In 2019, FAA developed a standard operating procedure for ATC staff transfers, but staff transfers were limited during the pandemic.

The audit noted that there is no standardized scheduling tool and pushes for it in 2016 have not seen any progress since 2018. Along with scheduling, the FAA uses a system called Cru-X/ART, which is the workforce management system. It records and tracks the time that controllers spend at their positions. According to managers at ATC facilities, the current scheduler and Cru-X/ART system “do not communicate well with each other.” There is a replacement for the current Cru-X system, called the Air Traffic Operations Management System (ATOMS), but the audit stated that there is no implementation date set for the new system.

Beyond air traffic controllers, the FAA faces a limited number of operational supervisors and traffic management coordinators (TMC). Operational supervisors ensure that controllers are following FAA protocol and TMCs create plans to regulate traffic flow and observe weather conditions. The roles of operational supervisors and TMCs are to ensure safe operations, and a shortage in these staff along with air traffic controllers prevents the FAA from accomplishing its task of air space management.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic also contributed to the staffing issues at the FAA, and according to the audit, the pause on air traffic control training prevented any further increase in staffing. Training has resumed, which means there are more controllers in training, especially at critical facilities. However, there is not enough capacity to fully train and ensure a high success rate in ATC training, which does not allow for more air traffic controllers. According to the audit, managers on site noted that the FAA should maximize the number of trainees to 30 percent of ATC and possibly prioritize training at other facilities.

It is important to note that the FAA faced training and staffing issues before the pandemic in 2018-2019. During the partial government shutdown, the FAA training academy in Oklahoma City closed, cancelling classes, and sending students home after they had just started. The impact of the 2018-2019 partial government shutdown was significant. Fewer ATC staff slows air traffic flow, which can cause major delays or cancellations. The shutdown came at a time when many air traffic controllers are close to retirement, and given the lengthy ATC training process, closing the FAA academy reduces the ability to train controllers for the long term.

At the end of the report, the OIG made the following recommendations. “1) Complete a comprehensive review of the model for distribution of certified professional controllers (CPC) for air traffic control facilities and update interim CPC staffing levels as necessary and 2) Implement a new labor distribution system that includes features such as timekeeping, overtime and Controller-in-Charge tracking, and real-time leave balances.”

As a long-term policy change, the FAA addressed the OIG audit indicating that they have been in the process of implementing ATOMS in place of the current Cru-X/ART workforce management system and their 2023 workforce plan addresses the need for a comprehensive review of ATC staffing. The FAA’s 2023 workforce plan details the state of hiring, and the future of the hiring process and training measures. In the 2023 plan, the FAA seeks to improve “training and scheduling processes,” using improved tracking measures. Part of the hiring plan also includes a detailed hiring process with a heavy focus on recruitment, evident in a 2022 media campaign called “BE ATC,” geared towards minorities, women, and underserved populations. The workforce plan also provides a brief overview of its air traffic facilities and services along with an overview of staffing standards.

Eno’s work on air traffic control reform addresses the FAA’s staff challenges. Eno’s Aviation Working Group recommended that a “new government corporation, or an independent non-profit organization” act as the provider of ATC services in the United States. The goal would be to separate the regulatory function from the operational and ATC function of the FAA, which is like many industrialized nations like Canada, France, and Germany. Placing ATC services under a government corporation or non-profit would free ATC from “congressional appropriations and federal procurement and personnel rules.” This, along with a new user-fee funding structure, could have increased the capability to provide efficient air traffic control.

The FAA and its policy response to staffing shortages could face challenges with another possible government shutdown in the winter. A government shutdown could derail efforts to update the FAA’s hiring, recruitment and training processes outlined in the 2023 workforce plan or implementation of ATOMS, further exacerbating the FAA’s staffing woes. A further slowdown of air space operations could cause major delays, especially in heavily congested areas like New York. The recommendations of a non-profit or government corporation from Eno insulate the air traffic control operations from changes in federal appropriations and keep the flow of air traffic during a shutdown.

According to the 2023 OIG audit, there has been limited progress in addressing governance and management issues at the FAA. The pandemic and 2018-19 partial shutdown did not help, causing the pause in training and the overall disruption of operations at the FAA (along with everywhere else in the world). But there are other issues such as internal disagreements, and limited efforts in implementing policy changes that, through the power of institutional reform, can be mitigated. The audit served an important purpose to investigate a prominent issue at the FAA (staff shortages) and potentially provide a platform to re-introduce the conversation on institutional reform. Instead of struggling to formulate alternatives, which takes time and effort (starting the policy process from scratch), Eno’s research laid the foundation with well-developed alternatives to the current structure and funding of air traffic control in the United States.

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