Guest Op-Ed: Safety, Shutdowns, and Air Traffic Control

On January 25 2019, the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history ended after 35 days. As the government shutdown entered its fifth week, no one should have been under the illusion that it was business as usual for aviation.

Although the National Airspace System (NAS) is safer now than it was during the shutdown, many activities and processes that proactively reduce risk and increase safety were suspended. Over 3,000 aviation safety professionals represented by NATCA were furloughed, along with hundreds of thousands of other federal employees. Another 15,000 NATCA-represented air traffic controllers and aviation safety professionals continued to work for more than a month without pay and without the necessary support staff who provide critical layers of safety in operating and overseeing the safest, most complex, most efficient airspace system in the world. Risk was unnecessarily introduced into a system that is risk averse.

Given the unprecedented nature and length of the shutdown, there is no question that there was a wide range of extensive damage inflicted upon the NAS and the harm to the system will have long-lasting effects.

Unfortunately, shutdowns and threats of shutdowns have become a common occurrence. Since the start of Fiscal Year 2018, the FAA has experienced three shutdowns and 11 additional threatened shutdowns either due to a lapse in appropriations or a lapse in FAA authorization.

Every day, 71,500 flights and over 2 million passengers travel through the NAS. A system that supports 12 million aviation-related jobs and contributes over $1.5 trillion annually to the U.S. economy cannot and should not be forced to withstand the unnecessary funding instability caused by shutdowns.

Shutdowns are a waste of taxpayer money and resources. They delay system maintenance and modernization and curtail the integration of important new users, such as UAS and commercial space. The shutdown also exacerbated the air traffic controller (ATC) staffing crisis. Staffing reached a crisis level in 2015 and despite some recent progress within the FAA’s hiring, training, and transfer processes, it remains a challenge.

ATC staffing is now at a 30-year low among Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs). Nationwide, 18 percent of CPCs are eligible to retire. The situation is even worse in the New York area, where approximately 25 percent of all delays in the NAS occur. The largest New York facilities have far worse staffing than the national average.  The New York Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities N90 (TRACON) is only 56 percent staffed with only 130 CPCs, 38 percent of whom are eligible to retire. New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY) is only 78 percent staffed with 233 CPCs, 28 percent of whom are eligible to retire.

NATCA has worked with Congress to alleviate the controller staffing crisis. Most recently, Congress enacted legislation with NATCA’s input that allows FAA to hire from the local commuting area into both N90 and ZNY. Even though there are over 100 air traffic controller trainees at both N90 and ZNY, it takes years to become fully qualified at these two very busy and complex facilities.

During the shutdown, the FAA was forced to cease hiring and shuttered its training Academy in Oklahoma City. The closure of the Academy will exacerbate the controller staffing crisis, as Academy training courses will be further delayed throughout 2019 and beyond. The air traffic controller staffing crisis is real and must be addressed. This was evident during the shutdown when controller staffing shortages led to system capacity challenges. On January 25, FAA issued a statement regarding how it was required to adjust capacity due to staffing shortages at two en route facilities.

“We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two air traffic control facilities affecting New York and Florida. As with severe storms, we will adjust operations to a safe rate to match available controller resources.

“We’ve mitigated the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic and increasing spacing between aircraft as needed. The results have been minimum impact to efficiency while maintaining consistent levels of safety in the national airspace system.”

The shutdown was just the latest of many instances in which FAA, its workforce, and the aviation industry have been held hostage by a political disagreement that has nothing to do with aviation. We can prevent this from happening again. NATCA, along with 40 aviation groups, are supporting H.R. 1108, the Aviation Funding Stability Act of 2019, a bipartisan bill that would authorize the FAA to continue to draw from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF) during a future government shutdown. H.R. 1108 would prevent the FAA from shutting down, even if the rest of the federal government is not funded. Over 100 bipartisan Members of Congress have already cosponsored the bill and support continues to grow. We should all work together to enact this vital legislation that protects the safety and efficiency of the NAS, the flying public, and FAA’s employees.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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