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Air Traffic Controllers Warn That Local Staffing Shortages Have Serious Implications for National Air Traffic System - (8/26/2004)

Congestion, delays, safety concerns on horizon

WASHINGTON – Following the steady drumbeat that the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) has been sounding since May, controllers across the country continued to warn the public and lawmakers that our nation is facing a staffing shortage of major concern in the coming years, stressing that in some cities the shortage is already evident, with serious implications for the future of our national air traffic system.

“Just as air travel is increasing, our nation is facing a serious shortage of air traffic controllers,” said NATCA President John Carr. “In many locations, the shortage has already hit. You may fly out of a city where there is an adequate staffing level, but there’s no guarantee that the city you’re flying into will be as lucky. The prognosis for the system as a whole is simple – fewer eyes on the skies can only lead to congestion, delays, and, yes, safety concerns.”

Carr noted that the staffing problem has hit some areas harder than others, but that because circumstances at one airport have consequences for others, major shortages of air traffic controllers throughout the country can have serious implications for the entire system. He went on to note that this snowball effect has become more pronounced because major hubs—such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark and many others—are understaffed.

“We’re glad the FAA is talking about this looming crisis. The public also needs the FAA to address the problem now,” Carr said . “We know that the FAA is working on a plan, but we need more than a plan. We need action. In most locations, we cannot afford to wait on staffing any longer.”

The FAA anticipates a national shortage of up to 50 percent in the next 10 years. One thousand controllers will need to be brought into the system each year to meet demand. Carr noted that in locations like Orlando and Tampa a serious shortage is on the horizon, which is particularly troubling given that it takes up to five years to train a controller.

Carr added, “Air traffic controllers will do everything they can to preserve the safest, most efficient air traffic control system in the world. But we cannot do it alone. The FAA and Congress must join with us to ensure that the system is not put at risk.”

Facilities across the country are either already experiencing serious shortages or facing them in the near future. Examples include:

  • Nashville Tower, authorized for 46 controllers, 37 are certified and up to 14 controllers are expected to retire by the end of this year. Even now, there are supposed to be 14 controllers on position on every shift in the tower, but the facility regularly operates with only 11 controllers and sometimes as few as 7.
  • Orlando International Tower, where starting in 2006, six controllers a year will be eligible to retire. Currently, there is only one trainee.
  • Birmingham Tower, where within five years, half of the current workforce will be eligible for retirement.
  • Dayton Tower, where only 35 of 53 authorized controllers are certified.
  • Des Moines Tower, where only 24 of 34 authorized controllers are certified.
  • Reno Tower, where only 19 of 27 authorized controllers are certified, and where 4 of these 19 are eligible to retire.
  • New Orleans, where at the Moisant Tower, only 32 of 39 authorized controllers are certified, with nine expected to retire in the next five years.
  • Tampa Tower, where 12 controllers out of 69 are eligible to retire, and there will be an estimated shortage of 75% within the next six years.
  • Chicago Center, where 44 certified professional controllers have been lost in the last five years and operational errors increased from an average of 31 per year before the shortage to 71 per year now.
  • Las Vegas TRACON, where 56 certified professional controllers are authorized but only 47 are on hand, with another 6 eligible to retire in the next year and 15 by 2007.
  • Miami Center, where 279 controllers are authorized but only 260 are on hand, and only 219 of these are certified.
  • Philadelphia Tower, where 109 controllers are authorized but only 88 are at the facility, and only 65 of these are fully certified.
  • Los Angeles Center, where 309 are authorized and only 219 certified controllers are on hand.
  • Newark Tower, where 40 controllers are authorized and there are only 29 who are certified. Of these, 6 are eligible to retire in the next five years.
  • Cincinnati Tower, where 75 of 78 authorized controllers are certified, but where 6 will retire before the end of this year.


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