The Shutdown’s Effect on Air Traffic Control — and How to End it

This piece was originally published in The Hill.

As the federal government shutdown stretches on, its effects on the nation’s aviation system are in the spotlight. Of course, there are the long lines reported at airport security checkpoints and concerns that they might get worse the longer the shutdown continues. But another critical problem is the shutdown’s effects on the nation’s air traffic control system.

Air traffic controllers are excepted from the furloughs, unlike their colleagues across the federal workforce, as their jobs are required for the safety of human life or the protection of property. And for good reason. The modern American economy literally could not function without controllers’ eyes on the skies and keeping the network the safest in the world.

However, these jobs are under severe stress due, in part, to a critical shortage of qualified workers. Many controllers now have to work six days per week and a 2016 report found that in the nation’s busiest airspaces, there is a very high percentage of controllers who are still trainees and cannot handle the traffic without direct supervision.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for hiring and training these workers and due to the staffing shortage has to rely on the extensive use of overtime for the day-to-day operation, which one government official recently testified “is problematic.”

The good news is that in cases where there are not enough controllers, air traffic capacity is reduced to maintain appropriate safety levels. The bad news is that with increasing demands on the nation’s airspace, reductions in traffic are untenable.

Here’s the problem: The government shutdown is making the problem much worse. Unlike other occupations, newly hired air traffic controllers cannot just step right into the job. Their duties require months of intense training at a federal training academy in Oklahoma City followed by as many as several years of on-the-job training at an air traffic facility.

While the controllers on the job now are excepted from furloughs and government shutdowns, the trainers and trainees at the academy are not. The training facility is currently shuttered and depending on how long the impasse in Washington lasts, classes will continue to be cancelled making it difficult for the FAA to meet its fiscal 2019 hiring goal.

This is not mere conjecture: The 16-day government shutdown in 2013 along with sequestration-related budget cuts resulted in the closure of the academy for 10 months.  It is not hard to understand that choking off the pipeline of workers compounds the controller shortage.

Other than ending the shutdown as soon as possible, what else can be done? Congress missed an opportunity to deal with the problem directly last year when it failed to take up a proposal to spin off the nation’s air traffic control system from the FAA to an independent nonprofit organization like Canada’s.

The FAA is a slow-moving bureaucratic agency that is also subject to the budgetary decisions of a recalcitrant Congress. Trying to fund multi-year, multi-billion programs based on short term funding extensions and annual appropriations is a challenge even without the periodic shutdowns. But since the 1980s the FAA’s attempts to expedite new technological upgrades and boost hiring have been impotent and ephemeral. A recent report from the transportation department’s Office of Inspector General blasted the FAA for its lack of an effective hiring process for controllers.

Separating the air traffic function from the FAA and moving it to an independent nonprofit would free the new entity from both federal procurement and personnel rules and accelerate the timely modernization we need. It would facilitate economic growth, increase mobility, and allow the nation to keep pace with our international competitors.

To address the country’s air traffic controller shortage, the immediate task for Washington is to end the shutdown. But the all-too-regular budgetary shenanigans highlight once again that the nation’s aviation system should not be subject to the whims and uncertainties of political battles. It’s time for reform.

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