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Audit Reveals Too Few Air Traffic Controllers at Over Half of Terminals

Air controller staffing levels are missing the mark at over half of “critical facilities.”

Air controller staffing levels at over half of airport terminals fell below planned ranges, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said in a recent audit report.

“The United States has one of the safest air traffic systems in the world, but maintaining the excellent safety record depends on having a fully staffed and well trained controller workforce,” said the Jan. 11 report, titled “FAA Continues to Face Challenges in Ensuring Enough Fully Trained Controllers at Critical Facilities.”

“FAA has improved oversight of staffing at critical facilities, but many of these facilities still have a clear shortage of fully trained controllers.”

The OIG pointed to industry experts and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facility managers who raised concerns about trainee-contribution accountability to staffing resources.

“This was due in part to significant weaknesses with the process that FAA uses to determine the staffing ranges in its plans. For example, a recent National Academy of Sciences study concluded that the design and execution of FAA’s en route staffing model included unrealistic assumptions about controller workload,” the report said.

The OIG also said that the FAA lacks accurate and complete data on best controller scheduling practices and fatigue. Both factors influence FAA’s ability to predict how many controllers are needed at certain locations.

In addition, the number of controllers needed for an operationally efficient facility is in dispute between air control managers and the FAA, resulting in ongoing debates and uncertainty regarding staffing levels.

“Without better models and more direct communication between Headquarters and facility managers, FAA will continue to face challenges in ensuring FAA’s critical facilities are well staffed, especially as more controllers retire,” the report said.

The OIG recommends:

  1. FAA develop methodology with completion dates for determining necessary staffing ranges.
  2. FAA document and tabulate planning and scheduling tools when negotiating annual controller work schedules at each facility.

[Photo: U.S. Department of Transportation]

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