WASHINGTON – There are too few fully qualified controllers at more than a dozen of the nation's busiest air traffic facilities stretching from Atlanta to Anchorage, according to report released Tuesday by a government watchdog.
The 13 airport towers, approach control facilities and en route centers have fewer fully trained controllers than the minimum number established by the Federal Aviation Administration specifically for each facility, Transportation Department's inspector general said.
The FAA considers the facilities fully staffed because controllers still in training are used to fill the gaps. But the report says there is great variation among trainee skill levels and readiness to work on their own.
It typically takes about three to five years for a trainee to become fully qualified. Many trainees need fully qualified controllers to sit alongside and watch while they direct air traffic, ready to step in if there is a problem. Other trainees have reached a level of proficiency where they're able to work alone.
The report also questions the validity of the minimum staffing levels the FAA has assigned to the facilities, finding fault with the agency's methodology.
The report comes as member of Congress gear up for a fight over whether to spin off air traffic control operations from the FAA and place them under the control of a nonprofit corporation made up of airlines, airports and other aviation "stakeholders." Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is expected to introduce a bill within the next few weeks. The concept has the support of most of the airline industry with the exception of Delta Air Lines. But key House and Senate Democrats, as well as some business and general aviation groups, are opposed.
The inspector general's office recently said in a separate report that spending on air traffic control operations has doubled over two decades, while productivity has declined substantially and efforts to improve performance have been ineffective.
Managers at some the 23 key facilities examined in Tuesday's report cited a higher number of controllers needed to fill all work shifts than the FAA's designated minimum number of personnel for that facility.
"As a result, there is still considerable debate and uncertainty regarding how many controllers FAA actually needs for its most critical facilities," wrote Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation.
Some managers agreed that trainees contribute to handling the workload, while others indicated that meeting on-the-job training requirements limited the contribution of trainees, the report said.
The 13 facilities where there were less than the designated minimum number of fully trained controllers are the Anchorage tower/approach control, Atlanta approach control, Chicago approach control, Chicago's O'Hare tower, Denver approach control, Dallas approach control, Houston approach control, New York's John F. Kennedy tower, New York's approach control, New York's high altitude traffic center, Las Vegas' approach control, Miami's tower, and Albuquerque's high altitude traffic center.
For example, at the New York approach control facility, where handling air traffic is notoriously demanding, there were 150 fully qualified controllers even though the minimum set by the FAA was 173. There were also 53 trainees.
The FAA data on staffing levels is from October 2014. The report doesn't explain why more current data wasn't used.
Responding to the report, the FAA said in a statement that it is expediting transfers of controllers "from well-staffed facilities to those needing additional personnel." The agency also said it has recently concluded research on how controllers do their jobs that will help improve overall staffing standards.
Further complicating the picture is the large share of fully qualified controllers who are eligible to retire. At the O'Hare airport tower, for example, 24 of the 48 fully qualified controllers were eligible to retire. At the airport tower in Miami, 30 of the 80 fully qualified controllers were eligible to retire.
Under FAA rules, any controller who has worked directing air traffic for 25 years is eligible for retirement benefits. Any controller over age 50 who has worked a minimum of 20 years is also eligible for retirement benefits. The FAA has set 56 as the mandatory retirement age for controllers, but most controllers retire before that.
The FAA doesn't consider the retirement situation at specific facilities when estimating how many new controllers it needs to hire, but rather uses a national forecast of retirements, the report said.
"FAA does not have the data or an effective model in place to fully and accurately identify how many controllers FAA needs to maintain efficiency without compromising safety," Hampton wrote.