The FAA Will Let New Air Traffic Controllers Skip The Academy, But That Still May Not Help New York

The FAA has a new plan that could double the number of air traffic controllers, as Transportation researcher Bob Poole reports.

The new FAA Administrator, Mike Whitaker, announced that graduates schools participating in the agency’s Collegiate Training Initiative that update their curriculum to cover all of the material taught at the FAA’s academy for controllers will no longer have to attend the FAA’s academy. Instead, once they’ve passed controller aptitude testing, they’ll be assigned to on-the-job training.

Slots in the FAA’s academy has been a binding constraint on the number of controllers. And this accomplishes two goals.

  • Hires qualified graduates and gives them immediate experience
  • Makes slots at the FAA’s academy available to those who haven’t done air traffic control training in colleges and universities

The FAA had gone to off-the-street hiring to meet diversity goals but the problem was there weren’t enough training slots, and qualified controllers were being passed over when we need controllers. Whitaker’s approach lets the agency train controllers from a variety of backgrounds without sacrificing onboarding those that have gone through training privately already.

Already the FAA’s air traffic organization has made strides in filling controllers slots, though, outside of one stubbornly tough to staff location: New York TRACON, which has fewer than 60% of the needed controllers.

The FAA keeps allowing airlines to keep their slots at congested New York airports without actually flying because of these staffing shortages. This keeps airfares high by limiting supply, and keeps new competitors out.

Part of the reason that New York TRACON is tough to staff is that the FAA doesn’t pay enough of a premium to work in New York. But reportedly the facility simply does not accept new controllers. Poole offers a clue as to why this unique situation persists – and it isn’t that they just have higher standards than everyone else.

The FAA had sought to move the Newark portion of NY TRACON’s workload to Philadelphia but Senator Chuck Schumer killed it. Apparently the two issues are linked: labor.

Poole cites an FAA report that found unique scheduling and overtime practices at New York TRACON. It’s unclear the extent to which this continues to go on, but according to the report:

  • “N90’s cost for overtime was more than 2.5 times that of the next-most-costly TRACON. Its overtime cost was more than the combined overtime cost for the TRACONs of Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Southern California, though it handles fewer operations per controller than they do.” Every controller is encouraged to use 100% of sick time every year in order to drive overtime.

  • They staff independent from flight schedule demands. They overschedule during the week, triggering overtime across weekends. And they schedule in a way that is different than every other TRACON. They also maintained full staffing for Islip traffic unmoored to actual flight levels, keeping that overstaffed and furthering the need for overtime. (As a result, staffing for Islip was 3 times as expensive per flight as other area airports.)

As Poole concludes, “The question someone in Congress should address to FAA Administrator Whitaker is, how much of those abuses are still common practice at N90, and how and when is this going to be fixed?” Because if New York TRACON is managed to ensure insufficient staffing levels, more controllers aren’t going to solve the air traffic problems in the Northeast.

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  1. […] While the FAA’s air traffic organization has made progress on staffing in much of the country, the problem remains greatest in New York. Part of the reason that New York TRACON is tough to staff is that the FAA doesn’t pay enough of a premium to work in New York. But reportedly the facility simply does not accept new controllers, which preserves overtime. […]


  1. FAA has never had a problem having a large-enough candidate pool. FAA has always had a problem in that their policies exclude a majority of that pool, regardless of merit.

  2. skip the training academy ? “diversity goals” ? “on the job training” ? hiring “off the street” ? Sounds far-fetched to me . I tend to doubt this . Cannot possibly be so .

  3. As someone who has worked at N90, Pool’s comment about the Islip sector is strange. “Flight level” is an actual air traffic term and has nothing to do with traffic volume. ISP is the slowest sector in the TRACON overall, but in the summer and on holidays it is an absolute circus, and their workload is extremely high. N90s staffing has mostly to do with its toxic culture (it’s getting better) and the fact that Long Island is not the best place to live. Why choose to go there when you can make just as much in Atlanta/Dallas/Houston (honestly take home more because of the tax situation). The best chance N90 has is to move off Long Island

  4. Affirmative action! Sad that they have to lower the bar to let minority candidates, who don’t meet full qualifications, in. I’m all for a diverse workforce but ONLY if ALL APPLICANTS meet the requirements. Otherwise, expect lawsuits like with the college admissions and SCOTUS has already shown they won’t allow separate entry requirements that either cater to minorities or keep out qualified White applicants.

  5. Corruption at it’s finest at New York TRACON. I’ve seen gaming of work rules and overtime rules before to boost overtime income.

  6. New York TRACON is still the cess pool of the 80’s. They were doing that before, gaming the time and failing new trainees. Just to make more money.
    Yes, it is a tough place to work but really, not checking someone out just to make more money is inexcusable.
    Congress needs to find more money for the training programs. Give the retired controllers who teach at the Academy a 30% income tax cut, and you will have more training for new controllers. There needs to be more trainers at the facilities. All of these are big blocks to having enough certified Controllers.

  7. My son was looking for a career change. He does ha some aviation background. I told to look into training as a controller that the pay was great. Not knowing exactly what the pay was so looked it up. Unbelievable! Under $50K to start! What a joke!! I told him to forget it. No wonder they can’t find people.

  8. They won’t hire anyone over 30 years old which is age discrimination. They need to raise the age limit. They only want 30-55 year olds.

  9. 99% of the plane crashes in the United States have involved white flight controllers and pilots. why are we worried about relaxing standards a bit to spice up the diversity numbers, seems like things can only get better.

  10. I was a controller for 13 years at Memphis ARTCC before Reagan fired us. Lowering standards is what caused us to go on strike. Not going to the Academy..what a joke. Not requiring a high school’re asking for it. Push to hire more “qualified” persons and yes, starting salary needs to be addressed.
    Wake up FAA, you know what to do…

  11. As a Zid controller this is exactly the type of policies that are causing unsafe incidents to rise in the NAS. Unacceptable

  12. Another anti labor article tinged with racism in the comments by View From the Right Wing.

    Most major TRACONS have mandatory OT and the controllers don’t want it – I have several friends, who are very good controllers, who have left the agency early because they just can’t deal with the hours.

    Skipping the Academy has nothing to do with your hatred of qualified candidates of color and qualified female candidates finally getting jobs, and everything to do with 1) severe understaffing caused by the long lasting effects of the misdeads of the Bush Administration and 2) the now near-mandatory requirement that a controller either having done a college program or having a military background.

  13. It seems like the problem is that an under-50k starting salary is not adequate in New York City so the local union has adapted realizing lots of overtime is necessary. If potential employees existed that wanted to live with tons of roommates and a monkish life style to live on that salary there, enjoying none of the cities amenities and not having a family, that is not who they hired, and those they did hire got overtime due to shortages and arranged rents, mortgages, kids schools, etc that dependended on overtime for them not to have to move out, foreclose, and send their kids to Rikers Island elementary school. So the overtime is a band aid for inadequate pay and of course they don’t want to rip it off and bleed out. In other markets, the pay is more livable so the OT did not become necessary. Sounds like they just need regional COLAs. As to diversity goals, they should hire the most qualified people. If they want a diverse workforce they should give some minorities scholarships to get the degree, not hire without the degree. But then again, who wants a grad degree for a job that pays under 50k?

  14. You will get better controllers if you hire with diversity methods than if you hire whoever can afford to attend the academy.

    @Marc: Indeed, a location pay differential is in order. Or…. there’s no longer any technical reason to control New York airspace from New York.

  15. Ugh I wish there was an edit… I mean afford to attend private ATC training.

  16. @Richard Lee Morrow…While I am sorry you were fired, I appreciate the fact you didn’t cross the line to keep your job. I’m sure there are still scab controllers just like there are scab pilots flying today. The handful of pilot scabs today come from United when they struck in ’85. There is one who has appeared in the comment section on this blog previously. He’s always called out when he does show his scab face. Does anyone recall his handle?

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