Why There Aren’t Enough Air Traffic Controllers, And Airlines Are Melting Down Because Of It

There’s a huge debate between airlines (especially United) and the FAA over who’s at fault for delays this summer. Obviously weather is a huge issue for airlines, but even there, an Air Traffic Organization that’s failed to properly staff and failed to invest successfully in technology means less throughput both under normal operations and when things slow down with weather.

The FAA asked airlines to reduce their flying in and out of New York this summer, because of a shortage of air traffic controllers. New York TRACON has been staffed only at around 60% and the FAA hasn’t acted. And yet they still can’t handle the volume that remains. Most people suppose this is a lagging problem coming out of the pandemic, since staffing across the board has been a challenge for businesses and especially in hospitality and transportation. But that’s actually not the issue.

  • Staffing shortages aren’t new. The Office of Inspector General says they raised the flag about understaffing in 2016.

  • FAA moves slowly, training controllers at less-demanding facilities, but actually transferring to new facilities takes up to a year.

  • They don’t pay enough of a differential to recruit candidates to the New York area

  • There’s no actual need for controllers to be physically present in a location with modern technology, but the FAA has largely walked away from remote towers projects where they can handle traffic virtually. The agency has not explained why it has seemingly abandoned the idea after a decade, and after declaring the pilot project in Leesburg to be “operationally viable.” They’ve pursued redesign of conventional towers at higher cost instead. According to the head of the air traffic controllers union, remote towers provide better tools to controllers than conventional ones.

Better management at the FAA would improve operations significantly. That doesn’t excuse airlines, whose own staffing issues led to meltdowns in 2021 and 2022.

However in the U.S. the federal government is both regulator of air traffic control as well as service provider. This is not a world best practice – you don’t want your agency providing air traffic control service regulating itself, and these two duties should be separated.

And it means there’s little accountability when they know about problems and do not act for years, and when they fail to manage technology projects and so it’s taken decades to even eliminate paper tracking of flights.

The Department of Transportation is going after airlines to provide consumer compensation for delays, which is fair, but fails to take responsibility for the delays it and its agencies cause. Airlines for their part try to foist the cost of improving air traffic control on taxpayers rather than paying for it directly as users of the system so their hands are hardly clean here too.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] However there’s been insufficient attention to this, focusing mainly when the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization breaks down because of antiquated equipment. The FAA ATO is understaffed. It has badly managed technology investments for decades, only finally working to eliminate the use of paper flight strips and pushing back against investments like remote towers. […]

Comments

  1. ATC retirement age is 56. That is why age 30 is the limit for hiring so they can get more than 20 years of work out of you. Bigger question is with modern medicine and health, why is this still a thing? If a controller is healthy and passes health and job performance checks then why force a retirement at age 56? Thats part of the problem. Just because a job is stressful doesnt mean some at age 58 or 60 cant do it safely and efficiently.

  2. Amazing how the airlines have given new meaning to the pejorative, “free ride.” Let’s not forget how the airline industry has benefited from the largesse distributed by Congress to build and maintain the Air Traffic Control System; how municipal bonds have built the airports; how the feds pay the airlines to carry the mail, etc.

    And here we thought the curbside bus lines perfected “free loading.”

  3. Hey ATC may be a mess these days, but at least they use the right pronouns…

    #priorities

  4. Nothing wrong with the “paper” system if you’ve seen it in action, it came from the railroad system.

    “Towers” generally handle the final landing, departing and taxing traffic within 5 miles of an airport and should be on field to visually confirm operations when possible. Instant redundancy. Stupid to even think of making these remote.

    Anyhoodies, the problems exist at other remote facilities such as New York TRACON which sits in an office building in landlocked Westbury, NY 15+ miles from airports. And New York Air Route Traffic Control Center which physically sits at ISP but doesn’t even “own” the airspace above it.

    I’ve been a guest at all 3 operations and they are amazing. I’d signup for a 4th career in an instant if I was younger

  5. Didn’t they institute a “diverthity” committment for ATC controllers?
    I’m sure that helped.
    Not.

  6. How does Pete Buttigieg still have a job? If this is primarily a staffing issue, how is it not fixed? Staffing is relatively easy to fix, if you actually prioritize it. Throw some bloody cash at the problem. Go recruit a bunch of young 20-something gamers, offer them salaries competitive with Silicon Valley, train ’em up and put them to work. Implement healthy regional housing bonuses if necessary to put them in New York. You know, like EVERY employer does. All the other B.S. Uncle Sam wastes money on! Spend the $$$, then recoup it from the airlines in increased fees.

  7. Pay a appropriately and the line for ATC will be down the block and around the corner

  8. There are plenty controllers. But very few talented controllers. Been like that since the 80’s

  9. The writing was on the wall ever since Reagan fired the PATCO air traffic controllers. Air traffic controllers cannot get compensation in line with the responsibility of the job that they perform so many of those who would go into the profession get jobs elsewhere. Being a flight attendant is a better job than an air traffic controller today. If the air traffic controller wages were to double, getting enough qualified air traffic controllers would not be a problem, but it would take some time to hire and train enough qualified candidates. Of course the FAA would have to staff at a higher level to accommodate.

  10. They only hire 2x per year!!! That is the problem. There are ready and trained military ATC personel out and ready to work but they have to wait to bid on jobs through the FAA during October or April. Totally insane.

  11. Pay appropriately? They make 6 figures plus ot and differential, 20 yr retirement…what more do you want?

  12. JNS
    So agree. When Reagan fired over 11.000 ATC from the rose garden, live, he did accomplish replacing them with military ATC. Travel continued , nobody died and it did work. Why we aren’t “borrowing” now I can’t understand. These are some of the best. While no fan of Reagan, I am willing to learn from history.

  13. FAA is an incompetent organization, inside of an even more incompetent and fully politicized Department of Transportation that is run for the benefit of the President and not the people who it pretends to serve. The USA has one of the worst transportation infrastructures of almost any developed country, and we should expect nothing better as long as these organizations stay within the government, rather than being privatized like in Canada, UK, Germany, Australia, etc.

  14. The federal government puts the money collected from air fare tickets which is supposed to go to the aviation trust fund and then spends it in the general budget.

  15. Really the salary is the issue. They just need to bump it by 40% and see if that helps, if it doesn’t bump it by another 40% etc. when the same issue exists in other fields and they scream labor shortage and want to bring in H1B’s. But the issue is really the pay.

  16. As much as I’d like to blame, do nothing but ride on private jets Pete, for all this the problem goes back at least a decade. They simply haven’t hired enough people over time. Apparently hiring more IRS agents is a priority right now and not ATC.

  17. ATC is a mess in part because the US under-invests in infrastructure and has done so for decades. Imagine all the improvements that could have been fulfilled with the money spent on “nation building”. Compared to many developed nations, the US is decidedly third world in its roads, bridges, airports, railways, and the infrastructure that supports them.

  18. @jay

    Pay is very low for the constant stress, must be hired by 30 years old (35 if already a private controller), 3 years to fully train, retire by 56 (in their contract which gives excellent retirement pay), physical and mental exams required, and training is very difficult.

  19. As others haven commented, the issue is pay, pay, pay. The trainee salary is $34-35k and then the pay after the academy is $43k (plus local adjustment). These wages are decades out of date and don’t take into account today’s realities of increased education and housing costs.

  20. We have to remember that “Mayor Pete” knows how to spell FAA but has no clue as to the who/what/when/where/how to run a Department Of Transportation. He was appointed, not because of his expertise or experience but to fill a quota. He was appointed because of WHAT he is…not because of WHO he is. That seems to be the norm with the current administration.

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