DOT Audit Critiques FAA’s Response To Shortage Of Air Traffic Controllers

8

A recent U.S. Department of Transportation audit conducted by the DOT’s Office of the Inspector General assessed the issue of maintaining adequate numbers of FAA air traffic controllers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The DOT’s dual objectives were to “(1) assess FAA’s efforts to ensure that critical air traffic control facilities have an adequate number of controllers and (2) identify the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on FAA’s controller training program.”

The audit criticized the FAA for its “limited efforts to ensure adequate controller staffing at critical air traffic control facilities,” adding that the agency, “has yet to implement a standardized scheduling tool to optimize controller scheduling practices at these facilities, and FAA officials disagree on how to account for trainees when determining staffing numbers.”

The auditors found that 77 percent (20 of 26) critical ATC facilities are currently staffed below the FAA’s 85 percent threshold. The New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) and the Miami Tower were cited as among the most challenged at 54 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Additionally, said the audit, the COVID-19 pandemic caused “training pauses” that spanned almost two full years, “significantly increasing controller certification times.”

In its summary of the audit, the Office of the Inspector General wrote that the FAA had accepted the DOT’s two outstanding recommendations for addressing the issues it found. “We consider both recommendations as resolved but open pending completion of the planned actions,” the audit summary concluded.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

Other AVwebflash Articles

8 COMMENTS

    • Understaffing has been a problem for many years, COVID made it worse, I am not surprised by the the report. KUDOS to all controllers.

      FAA MEMO

      To: Nelda Z. Smith, Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits
      From: Erika Vincent, Acting Director, Office of Audit and Evaluation, AAE-1

      Subject: Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Response to Office of Inspector General
      (OIG) Draft Report: FAA Faces Controller Staffing Challenges as Air Traffic
      Operations Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels at Critical Facilities

      The FAA fully understands that adequate staffing at its critical facilities helps ensure the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System and is committed to getting to adequate staffing levels. We have recently completed a comprehensive review of the distribution of controllers, which was included in the Controller Workforce Plan submitted to Congress on May 5, 2023.

      Additionally, we are implementing the Air Traffic Operations Management System (ATOMS), a
      comprehensive system that will track controller timekeeping and various work assignments.
      Implementation of ATOMS kicked off on May 15, 2023, with key site training for Richmond and Roanoke, VA, towers. Key site testing will occur over the summer of 2023 with the expectation that these two facilities will go live using ATOMS by August 2023. A waterfall schedule for widespread training and implementation of ATOMS is currently being collaborated on by the agency and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Additional sites will receive training starting in September 2023, and it will take approximately one year to deploy the system to all Air Traffic facilities, the Command Center, and all Flight Service Stations. We plan to have all facilities transitioned from Cru-X to ATOMS by the end of 2024.
      Upon review of the OIG’s draft report, the FAA concurs with both recommendations as written. We plan to complete both recommendations by September 30, 2023.
      We appreciate this opportunity to offer additional perspective on the OIG draft report. Please
      contact Erika Vincent at [email protected] if you have any questions or require additional
      information about these comments.

      • Understaffing has been a problem for many years, COVID made it worse, I am not surprised by the the report. KUDOS to all controllers.

        FAA MEMO

        To: Nelda Z. Smith, Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Audits
        From: Erika Vincent, Acting Director, Office of Audit and Evaluation, AAE-1

        Subject: Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Response to Office of Inspector General
        (OIG) Draft Report: FAA Faces Controller Staffing Challenges as Air Traffic
        Operations Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels at Critical Facilities

        The FAA fully understands that adequate staffing at its critical facilities helps ensure the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System and is committed to getting to adequate staffing levels. We have recently completed a comprehensive review of the distribution of controllers, which was included in the Controller Workforce Plan submitted to Congress on May 5, 2023.

        Additionally, we are implementing the Air Traffic Operations Management System (ATOMS), a
        comprehensive system that will track controller timekeeping and various work assignments.
        Implementation of ATOMS kicked off on May 15, 2023, with key site training for Richmond and Roanoke, VA, towers. Key site testing will occur over the summer of 2023 with the expectation that these two facilities will go live using ATOMS by August 2023. A waterfall schedule for widespread training and implementation of ATOMS is currently being collaborated on by the agency and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Additional sites will receive training starting in September 2023, and it will take approximately one year to deploy the system to all Air Traffic facilities, the Command Center, and all Flight Service Stations. We plan to have all facilities transitioned from Cru-X to ATOMS by the end of 2024.
        Upon review of the OIG’s draft report, the FAA concurs with both recommendations as written. We plan to complete both recommendations by September 30, 2023.
        We appreciate this opportunity to offer additional perspective on the OIG draft report.

    • LOL ATOMS does nothing to rectify or prevent future issues with staffing.
      Staffing in its current state is a long track record of inadequate attrition planning, outlandish hiring practices, and broken programs that were initially designed to aid in employee transfers. And before we throw the agency under the bus alone, NATCA stands quite tall in the shit too. Lets also not be completely ignorant and think that the agency is the sole fault for delayed flights. In reality, 90% of flight delays and cancellations lay at the feet of the airlines with their poor scheduling practices and weather.
      My mandatory overtime will end in 4 years when I retire early and leave the cesspool of broken leadership and inept hiring practices.

  1. A good friend of mine has been an ATC for many years (gladly nearing retirement – his words) and we discussed this very thing. He stated that many new ATC’s came in during the Covid years, but had little traffic to contend with, so not getting the “real life” experience that they are once again needing. There are many other issues – perhaps the “big boys” should speak with persons such as my friend to get the real stories!

  2. I worked four ATC facilities from 1977 to 2008 (a Center, a FSS, a tower and and tower/TRACON) and there was constant under-staffing. The majors have been working 6 day weeks forever with mandatory overtime to boot. This is nothing new and will literally take an act of Congress to get things fixed. Some hub managers will say it’s cheaper to use overtime than to hire and train more controllers. Others will tell you to do your best to keep sick leave down, but never tell you how to accomplish that. More will tell you annual leave takes precedence over training, so the training suffers during the summer when the traffic levels are the highest. Good luck fixing it anytime soon! There was a post on the FAA Retirees Facebook page last week about staffing problems going back to at least 1968 at places such as O’Hare and what was back then Los Angeles Center.

  3. KFFZ Mesa Falcon Field Mesa AZ is home to at least 5 major flight schools and is among the busiest GA airports in the country. The tower closes at 5pm due to staffing and this airport (which is far busier than many major metro airports) goes to CTAF and single runway Ops. I really hope it doesn’t take a tragedy for sanity to return to tower staffing.

    • Not to worry, a VERY recent change to AC 90-66C dated June 6, 2023 — Non-towered Ops — fixes everything. This was driven by the mid-airs at Winter Haven, Dallas and Las Vegas. Pilots are now advised NOT to make straight in approaches when there is any traffic in the pattern as opposed to the previous 2019 change where straight ins were treated as a normal option. Yeeaahhh … that oughta make everything better …

LEAVE A REPLY