An audit by the US DoT suggests ATC numbers in the USA are not where the need to be

The Headline:

‘FAA faces Controller Staffing Challenges as Air Traffic Operations Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels at Critical Facilities’.

Well, that doesn’t sound great. Are they going to start bringing in untrained folk like Ethiopia, Dakar etc did during strikes and shortages? Do we need to send care packages to lonely, solitary controllers sat in towers like sad Rapunzels?

No, none of those things need/will/are happening. But, it is something we could maybe do with paying a little attention to (‘we’ being international pilots, planners, ops people etc who might be involved in ops to the USA) because we can help, possibly.

What’s the story?

Well, it starts with some good news.

The FAA and aviation ops in general in the USA are very safe. Very very safe. US ATC are all very good and there are no airports looking to have to reduce operations because of staff shortages. The NAS is running just fine.

The audit was mostly looking at how proactively the FAA are handling the post-Covid ramp up to pre-Covid levels, and what efforts they are taking to ensure they have enough trained controllers in the future.

However, it did highlight a little bit of a ‘now’ problem: They are slightly short.

How short?

OK, quite short. They try to maintain an 85 percent threshold (I am not entirely sure what that means) and most of the big ‘critical’ facilities are not meeting that threshold.

By ‘critical’ they mean the airports and centers which handle a whole lot of traffic in the busiest, most congested, complex or otherwise very-important-because-it-leads-to-a-lot-of-airports/other-airspace airspace. So places like New York TRACON, Atlanta TRACON, Jacksonville Center etc.

The report seems to suggest there are two potential issues:

  1. There aren’t enough ATC in general. A big reason for that is our old favourite Covid which put a pause on training new ATC.
  2. There aren’t enough Traffic Management Coordinators and Ops Supervisors. Not entirely sure exactly what they do, but they sound important so I am going to guess at them being the most experienced folk who sort out big problems and deal with nasty challenging stuff when needed.

The Long and the Short of it.

The FAA employs around 13,300 ATCs at over 300 facilities across the US.

10,600 of these are fully qualified which leaves around 26% ‘trainees’. Sounds a lot, but it isn’t and while operations have increased, ATC numbers have headed down leaving them understaffed.

That means mandatory overtime for a lot of them, which means:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Other things which we (pilots) can really empathise with.

But don’t worry, more trainees will be heading in, which means:

  • A higher number of trainees

Then there is the shortage in TMCs and Ops Supervisors. Now, like I said before, this doesn’t mean there aren’t perfectly brilliant controllers working. There are. It just means the pressure can be on when things do head into the realms of ‘about to get horribly challenging’.

So, the summary (according to the report): ‘There is a potential risk to air traffic operations and/or the continuity of it’.

Our summary:

We are all part of the big aviation team, and there are some ways we think we can try and help:

1. Know where the shortages are. Not to avoid those areas, but to have an awareness that if challenging conditions are occurring, ATC might be facing additional pressures and some disruption could occur.

2. Plan ahead. This is probably the biggest thing we can all do to assist. Pilots, planners, dispatchers, operator ops controllers – proactive planning and flight management is going to help take some of the pressure off ATC, and off you if shortages do lead to any disruption.

3. Know your procedures. Whether it is RT, arrival, departures, general airport ops stuff – this is going to help you, other folk and ATC out.

4. Listen. I mean we all do anything, but just a reminder to follow ATC clearances, not miss calls, and generally just be professional.

5. Keep your SA up. It isn’t ATC vs Pilots, we’re on the same team, so if they make a mistake work with them to help fix it (like they do for us), and be patient in case it is someone on training. If in doubt, ask.

6. Support the team. Pilots (I am one so can say this) love to moan about how tired we are. Actually, its not always unwarranted, but our ATC colleagues work some hideous shift as well so spare a thought for their fatigue and tiredness levels. If stress levels are rising, speak calmly, professionally and don’t get snarky.

7. Think about the weather. It is the nemesis of ATC just as much as pilots, but they have to manage a whole load of aircraft in a whole big area of airspace. Good planning, fuel management, proactive requests, reports to other pilots and knowing contingencies can help take the pressure off ATC.

If you are an ATC reading this and you have any suggestions, throw a comment our way and we will add it in.

A quick and closer look.

Some facts and figures dug out of the report, and some other info too.

New York TRACON have 13 authorised TMCs but only have 3 actually working (if I read the report right). This is 23% of what they probably should have, while their Ops Supervisors number is just 27%. I picked on NY TRACON because it is one of the ‘most critical’ centers in the USA.

You can see the full list in the report which is right here.

I have never really thought about the folk behind the voices wafting along the airwaves to me. OK, I have, but normally I am in a vaguely panicked state of worrying about the wind and how much my Captain/passengers are about to judge my landing so haven’t given it all much thought.

So, I decided to read up on NY TRACON, or N90 as it is known, and I found this – their floor plan.

It is a busy spot and no wonder – TRACON stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control which means they provide approach services for several chunks of airspace, KJFK, KEWR and KLGA arrivals, departures and general traffic flow

…And any one else in and out of the Class B airspace in that region

…And a bunch of smaller but busy airfields around the area as well.

New York Center (ZNY) (I started reading up on them too) was actually the first en-route control facility in the world. They look after a just a little chunk of domestic airspace but a huge swathe of Oceanic. In total, it is around 3,270,000 square miles. They be big.

And the handle traffic heading in and out of the North Atlantic into the NY TRACON area.

The big challenge for ATC

Airspace is sort of connected. You might have spotted that. But it means a disruption in one can easily lead to knock on effects in the next. That disruption might be congestion, weather, an emergency, an airspace closure, and ATC have to deal with that for many aircraft.

A shortage in the experienced TMCs and Ops Supervisors can mean proactive management of emerging situations is harder to deal with, while general shortages and fatigue can add to the pressure overall.

So we hope the issue is resolved and in the meantime, having an awareness of the challenges they are facing might help us all support Aviation Safety more.

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