Last updated: 02:55 PM ET, Wed October 14 2015

Is the US Running Out of Air Traffic Controllers?

Impacting Travel | Donald Wood | October 14, 2015

Is the US Running Out of Air Traffic Controllers?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Union leaders assert that the lack of air traffic controllers is reaching a crisis level, and if the issue is left unchecked, the personnel shortage could lead to flight delays.

According to Joan Lowy of the Associated Press, National Air Traffic Controllers Association officials made the announcement Tuesday that the Federal Aviation Administration had once again failed to meet its hiring goals for controllers, marking the fifth consecutive year the department missed its targeted numbers.

The number of air traffic controllers has also reached its lowest total in 27 years.

At a time when air traffic is increasing in the United States, union leaders are reporting that the number of certified professional controllers has declined 10 percent in the last three years. Of the 10,859 certified controllers in the country, an estimated 30 percent are also currently eligible to retire.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association executive vice president Trish Gilbert compared the situation to the government cuts that forced the furlough of 10 percent of the controller workforce in 2013. During the time the furlough was in place, there was about three times the normal number of delays.

Gilbert told the AP, “We see that they are in dire straits and therefore we must speak up. We have far too few controllers in our towers and radars rooms.”

The FAA responded with a statement of their own, saying, “The past government shutdown and budget cuts closed the FAA's controller training academy for nine months, delaying initial training for several classes of new air traffic controllers. As a result, the FAA has been working hard to hire at an increased rate to meet its air traffic controller staffing targets.”

Union leaders believe some of the blame falls on the shoulders of Congress, as the FAA’s attempts to hire more controllers and plan for the future is hindered by uncertainty around the budget for the department each year.

The concern is that the current air traffic controllers are being overworked. Four years ago, NASA warned the FAA “that chronic controller fatigue was undermining safety and urged the agency to eliminate six-day work weeks as soon as possible.”

Many of the busiest airports in the United States still have controllers working with just one day off per week.


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