Ensuring adequate staffing and training for air traffic controllers—an essential part of maintaining the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS)—has been a challenge for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), especially at the Nation’s most critical facilities. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the Agency’s ability to maintain the required number of controllers at these facilities.
Given the importance of minimizing the risks to the continuity of air traffic operations, as well as the potential impact of COVID 19 on staffing and training, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Transportation initiated an audit to assess FAA’s efforts to ensure that critical air traffic control facilities have an adequate number of controllers and identify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on FAA’s controller training program.
OIG found that FAA has made limited efforts to ensure adequate controller staffing at critical air traffic control facilities. OIG said in its June 21 report that FAA is also has yet to implement a standardized scheduling tool to optimize controller scheduling practices at these facilities, and FAA officials disagree on how to account for trainees when determining staffing numbers. As a result, FAA continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations.
OIG determined that 20 of 26 (77 percent) critical facilities are staffed below FAA’s 85-percent threshold, with New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and Miami Tower at 54 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
Additionally, COVID-19 led to training pauses over a period of nearly 2 years—significantly increasing controller certification times. OIG is concerned that FAA will not know the full impact of the training suspension on certification times for several years because training outcomes vary widely, and it can take more than three years to train a controller. Due to these uncertain training outcomes, OIG maintains that FAA cannot ensure it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term.
FAA concurred with OIG’s recommendations to improve its ability to ensure adequate staffing at its critical facilities.
It is also worth noting that on the day OIG released its report, FAA announced that it is launching a monthly “Stand Up for Safety” series to provide mandatory special emphasis training for its controller workforce. This effort, which will be held in collaboration with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, will focus on relevant safety topics aimed at strengthening the proficiency of controllers in all FAA facilities. The in-person briefings begin in July.