Are you an air traffic controller? Tell us what your working conditions are like. All submissions will be kept anonymous.
John F. Kennedy International Airport on June 16, 2021. [Photo by Antony-22 / CC BY-SA 4.0]
A recent slew of mistakes and near-misses has finally received the public attention of officials in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Aviation safety experts and industry union representatives reported to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Safety on November 9 that a shortage of air traffic controllers has led to increased fatigue and distraction, in turn contributing to an increase in close calls this year.
Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB), said that aviation safety is “showing clear signs of strain that we cannot ignore.”
“Air traffic controllers are being required to do mandatory overtime,” Homendy testified at the Senate hearing. “It ends up leading to fatigue and distraction, which is exactly what we’re seeing as part of these incident investigations. And it all just comes down to the shortage of staffing.”
Rich Santa, the President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), told the subcommittee that mandatory overtime is routine, including 6 day workweeks and 10 hour shifts. “It’s unsustainable,” he said. “The answer is not continuing to burden us with more fatigue, and continuing to burden us with more effort and work. It’s hiring the right amount of controllers” so that the facilities are adequately staffed.
Air travel dropped sharply in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary, necessary lockdowns that ensued. During this time, the FAA halted hiring and closed the sole training academy in Oklahoma City. Academy graduates and trainees in FAA facilities nationwide were told to stay home as their training was suspended. In short, the training pipeline was blocked, and no new controllers were being certified while many controllers took the opportunity to retire instead of being forced to work in unsafe facilities during a pandemic where little was being done to protect workers from deadly infection.
Passenger flights rebounded in 2022 when the last of the meager measures protecting against the pandemic were swept away in the name of protecting “the economy.” The FAA was then faced with an instant staffing crisis, prepared by decades of down-to-the-wire hiring practices.
The FAA had called a safety summit in March of over 200 safety experts from US air carriers, airports, air traffic control, and trade unions. These groups were asked to look at the recent problems with “fresh eyes.” But everyone in the aviation industry has known for decades about the chronic staffing crisis with FAA air traffic controllers.
When Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 as part of its crushing the PATCO strike (the NATCA, formed among the scab controllers, replaced PATCO as the air traffic controllers’ union after the strike), the FAA had to rapidly hire new controllers within a few months and years in order to recover a high level of safety in the airspace. As a consequence, massive numbers of air traffic controllers were projected to retire later at nearly the same time.
Air traffic controllers, like firefighters and other highly stressed safety workers, are required to retire by the age of 56 due to biological stresses of the job and the decrease in reaction time and cognitive abilities that come with age. Despite this, the FAA has been known to issue exemptions to allow some workers to work past mandatory retirement age, which has the effect of eroding the margin of safety.
This age-out requirement and the consequences for staffing are well-known, but the FAA has repeatedly failed to act to prevent the looming crisis that now stands before them. The National Air Traffic Controller Association (NATCA) has also long-known about this perpetual staffing crisis. Despite posing as an organization that staunchly defends its membership and the flying public against the grinding wheels of an incompetent FAA bureaucracy, NATCA has also failed to organize its membership to fight for a solution to the staffing and safety problems. Instead, NATCA has gamely gone along with the agency’s hiring plans for years, insisting to its membership that the union has no power over the hiring process.
The Chief Operating Officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO), Tim Arel, said that the FAA is working to “hire, train and certify as many controllers as possible. While we have a long way to go, many of the facilities are much healthier than they were previously.”
Senator Ted Cruz, the ranking Republican of the Senate Commerce Committee, asked Arel if a second academy location might help to train more controllers. “At this rate, it would take years for the FAA to hire enough controllers to meet the need,” Cruz said.
“The greatest challenge is not the physical space” at the academy, said Arel. “It’s the number of retired controllers, either military or FAA, that are available to provide instruction,” and are willing to relocate to Oklahoma City to work as instructors.
Air traffic staffing is a snowballing problem where controllers retire as early as possible because of the poor working conditions, and few are willing to relocate away from home to Oklahoma City upon retirement for lower pay and worse working conditions. The academy thus becomes a choke point in the hiring process where the FAA is unwilling to change their process or offer more pay to attract qualified instructors.
College graduates of the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), a program that has languished from official disdain and union betrayals on subjects like seniority, are expected to soon be hired and sent directly to their facilities for training. CTI graduates have already received basic air traffic training at their accredited colleges, so it is seen as a shortcut for the FAA, who only now sees it that way because they are in a crisis of their own making.
“Our nation is experiencing an aviation safety crisis,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). “Near-misses are happening way too frequently, and I refuse to be complacent in waiting to act until the next runway incursion becomes a fatal collision.”
These protestations from both capitalist parties do nothing to address the issues facing controllers themselves, however.
Applicants are not able to choose for themselves where they are sent after graduating from the academy. They are sent where they are needed most, which is often away from their homes, family, and friends with almost zero chance to transfer back home for many years, if ever.