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Certified air traffic controller workforce grew by just 6 in the last year, union says

Julio Cortez/AP

The nation’s understaffed and overworked air traffic controller workforce has grown by only six fully trained controllers over the last year, the workers’ union president told Congress.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Rich Santa told a Senate subcommittee Thursday growth in the thousands is needed. The FAA’s controller ranks are about 3,600 short of the 14,000-plus controller staffing goal, he said. It would take more than a decade of hiring at maximum levels to catch up, he noted.

“We are not healthier than we were last year, controller-wise,” Santa said. “I think FAA’s own numbers indicate we have potentially six more air traffic controllers than we had last year systemwide. That is not an expansive increase of what we need.”

While The FAA did not refute the workforce grew by 6, it said in a statement the situation needs context.

Many factors affect staffing levels

The FAA said it hired 1,500 controllers this year and is on pace to hire 1,800 in 2024. “We have 2,716 trainees making their way through the system right now. Most of the trainees are already partially certified on positions.”

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Nearly 1,000 of those trainees, the statement said, are already certified controllers who have moved from smaller facilities for training at a larger and busier sites – an eight percent increase from 2022. Additionally, there are 4% more operational supervisors who can control traffic.

“The certified professional controller number at one point in time does not paint a full picture,” the FAA said.

”The number of certified controllers will always fluctuate because controllers retire, resign, are promoted to supervisory positions, or transfer to other facilities and require retraining. So far this year, more than 340 certified controllers transferred to other facilities or positions and were reclassified as controllers in training.”

The FAA’s air traffic control chief testified at the same hearing a limiting factor is the number of teachers – including retired controllers – available. The academy training air traffic controllers could temporarily shutter if there’s a government shutdown, which could set the FAA even further behind.

“While we’re working to prioritize and train as many controllers – 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,” said Tim Arel, the chief operating officer of the FAA’s air traffic control arm.

Shortage could have lasting effects

Santa said too many controllers are working overtime shifts, or in some cases assigned to six-day workweeks.

“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 our facilities are not 70 and … 80 percent staffed,” Santa said. “It’s untenable and it needs to be corrected through hiring and not changing the standards.”

National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Jennifer Homendy told the panel she is “absolutely” concerned ATC understaffing is a safety risk and contributing to runway near-collisions.

“What’s happening from the staffing shortage is that air traffic controllers are being required to do mandatory overtime,” Homendy said. “It ends up leading to fatigue and distraction, which is what we’re seeing as part of these incident investigations.”

In a May interview, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN the FAA is understaffed by about 3,000 positions.

The shortage of controllers has driven some airlines to reduce schedules, and airline executives have said the problem could disrupt flights for years.

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