The Comings and Goings of Air Traffic Control

A USA Today headline asks how many air traffic controllers handle each cross-country flight, say from LAX to JFK. Handoffs happen all over the map. Controllers carve out slices of space and/or time and leave behind jet-fuel smelling backwash. There are plans to improve traffic control with fewer controllers. Plans to save millions by spending billions.

Did you ever listen to air traffic control? Or read some FT “channel 9” threads? “Heavy triple-7 #1405 on 6-mile final. Estimate wind 270. Clear to land.” And then the Korean pilot on final approach says something incomprehensible. How do they keep it all together?

Maybe by sheer numbers. It takes 31 controllers to guide a flight across the country. The job description is clear: Apply Separation Rules.

Of the current 15,000-air traffic controllers (down from 20,000-plus a few years ago), most arrived via a FAA certified air traffic management degree and an in-your-face apprenticeship. Today the FAA posts a job opportunities Webpage. No jobs are posted. Controllers are an endangered species at small airports around the country, especially at night, a time when news reports suggest fiscal-cliff lawmakers want cuts.

The FAA says the billion dollars lawmakers want from the FAA’s $15.9-billion budget would close 246 airport control towers and lay off 1,200 air traffic controllers. (And maybe 2,000 TSA screeners and 1,600 customs inspection officers.)

And maybe that’s all just fodder for a larger FAA issue.

At a minimum, the FAA wants a $ 40 billion upgrade of U.S. air-traffic control. The price goes up as you increase capabilities, maybe to a sky-high $160 billion. The upgrade would morph the present way-behind-the-times-radar-based system into a wicked satellite-controlled network known as NextGen. We’re going from dialup to smartphone.

Who knows how many air traffic controllers it will take to get a flight across America?

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