I listen to a lot of ATC tapes and the latest was about the flap damage on the Southwest flight at Denver Sunday morning. When pieces fall off an airplane in flight it’s a flat-out, hair-on-fire emergency. Neither the controllers nor the pilots know for sure what has been damaged and even though decisions are made quickly the incident unfolds in a frustrating slow motion.

It’s so incredibly stressful and the stakes are so high, the people directly involved are instantly placed under immense pressure. Listening to today’s exchange, except for the occasional moment when you can hear a little strain in the pilot’s voice, the players are so calm, deliberate and rational they could be ordering burgers at a drive through.

Of course that’s part of their training and it’s drilled into both pilots and controllers to keep their heads when things are going to hell in a handbasket. Although the Denver incident seemed, on balance, to be  relatively minor, you can never be sure. I would challenge any of the cynics who chime in about the whining they perceive when pilots and controllers are negotiating contracts to honestly gut check themselves and see how they would do under the circumstances.

And let’s not forget that incidents like this are actually relatively common for controllers. Not so much for pilots but they also have a lot more skin in the game when they do occur. For controllers, thinking on your feet and being ready to throw the rule book out the window to do what’s necessary for a safe outcome is as much a part of the job as strict adherence to those rules is for the rest of the time.

Now, imagine that you’ve been working a mandatory 10 hours a day, six days a week for years. Sometimes the shifts are only eight hours apart. Because your workplace is so short staffed, you consider it to be dangerous and like most of your colleagues you believe an error occurring that kills hundreds of people is not just possible or even likely. You believe it is inevitable.

I’ve been given insight into the life of controllers recently but none of them can be quoted because both the union and the FAA keep a tight lid on public comments. But it’s fair to say that the pronouncements of their leaders about staffing and the measures to improve it barely scratch the surface. The video I’ve put on this blog was suggested as an accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs in ATC. It’s an eye-opener.

You can get a snapshot of the issue at 123atc.com, which is not an official site but is considered accurate by controllers. I’ll give you my broad brush assessment. The very busiest facilities, those most crucial to the safe conduct of the most airplanes every day,  are the most severely short staffed. To make matters even worse, they take the longest to train new controllers and havehighest failure rates of new recruits. 

Although the situations at Chicago, Detroit and Miami are bad, New York TRACON is the worst. It has only 58 percent of full staffing, it takes 2.66 years to certify a new trainee and 68 percent of them fail to become certified. The situation there is so bad that despite all the noise about hiring more controllers and speeding up training, the staffing at New York TRACON is actually predicted to drop by five percent to just 53 percent in coming years. 

The discussions I’ve had are not with alarmists. They are with the same professional and level headed demeanor of those guys in Denver who quickly and efficiently expedited the safe outcome for those 143 people on the Southwest flight. 

That makes it all the more chilling to me. These folks are not screaming from the rooftops because that is not their way. But they are nonetheless sounding an alarm and we’d all better hope someone is listening when the news cameras have been turned off.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Wow… talk about throwing out a bunch of shark chum. Me “Thinks” it’s time to break out the Doritos.

  2. Blame current staffing problems on 1981? 43 years is plenty of time to correct whatever difficulty was created. It’s ongoing management failure, not just in personnel but also in upgrading ATC systems to better deal with current traffic volume. Authorized in 2004 and funded by $14bn so far, ATC modernization wasn’t even planned to have systems complete until 2030 and is behind schedule.

    • It kinda makes sense if you look at it in this way:
      1) clean house, fire everyone
      2) hire a bunch of people who want to be ATCOs, probably in their 20’s or 30’s
      3) Add 40 years – retirement age!!!

      Combine this with the general demographic situation with the Boomers (a huge generation) aging out and being replaced by smaller generations, and have a bit of a mess. Government seems to be very short-sighted and doesn’t plan for such things well.

      We see a similar phenomenon with the airline industry – the wave of retirees was once a wave of new hires, and this is causing the current wave of recruitment.

      • Your 3rd point doesn’t apply to ATC in the US. Some people are able to retire at 20 years, some at 25, but the mandatory retirement age is 56. Unless you get into the agency at 16, no one is staying in for 40 years and retiring from air traffic.

        The last big retirement surge we had was 2006-2008, 25 years after the 1981 strike. But we’re quickly approaching the 20 year mark for those hires and a LOT of those people will be retiring as soon as they’re eligible because they’re tired of 6 day work weeks.

  3. Unfortunately this goes further back than FAA management. Traditional government functions have been ignored for years because they aren’t new flashy programs the government for years has wasted money and resources on. The park service is a perfect example, in the 1990’s Congress went along with Clinton and started charging admission to what used to be free due to lack of federal funding. FCC is another. How many pilots who started flying in the 1980’s got their restricted FCC radio permit for free? Another government service that cost extra now. Look how long the backlog for special issuance medical is. Until the FAA gets the funding needed for training new controllers, Im afraid nothing will improve.

  4. Look no further than Boeing to see how leadership can drive an organization into the ground. It is worse on the public sphere: can you imagine someone today saying that they want to make long-term improvements in a government bureaucracy? (It will take decades, to be clear.) Further, the media doxxing individuals within ATC has made any type of transparency into a personal liability. It is hard to imagine any individual getting up and saying “we have a problem” in a gotcha world bereft of actual leadership.

    @Nilo – sheesh, you are kidding. This is not a systems issue, it is a people issue. The US has steadily diminished government work (think of the jokes that come to mind) and underfunded basic services when it comes to people. They’re happy to buy computers (vendors and lobbyists!), but not to invest into improving actual organizations and people.

    • Peter, you are correct in every sense. Unfortunately, this is a downward spiral that cannot be corrected. A straight up case of shooting the messenger. As a society, we are at that point and as you have pointed out, “look no further than Boeing.”

  5. 60 hour weeks are illegal in most countries. Even 48 hour weeks are getting rare — France famously has a 35 hour work week — which equates to Dolly Parson’s “working nine to five…”
    Do you really want to work more?

  6. If the unstated end-goal is to replace humans with IT, then this way of managing ATC staffing is perfect. It could be the usual playbook: create a problem, solve it with IT, then off to the country club for drinks and kick-backs.

  7. I could never be a controller. I get stressed out just listening to the frequency sometimes when pilots are stepping all over each other and the controller responds with a voice that betrays his/her stress, “OK EVERYONE BE QUIET AND I’LL GET BACK TO YOU ONE AT AT TIME. I’M WORKING MULTIPLE FREQUENCIES HERE.” And given the state of computerization we’ve achieved, I can’t we still rely on radio communications.

  8. Retired Terminal ATCS/SATCS here. One thing I am so tired of listening to BOTH sides cry about is the schedule. The FAA ceded the responsibility for scheduling to the Union years ago. It is the Union that imposes (supposedly by popular vote of its members) the crazy quick turn schedule in practically every ATC facility. Just like the crazy idea that Daylight Savings Time adds more time to our days, NATCA thinks working the compressed schedule gives you more time off. Illustration – Monday you work 4-midnight, Tuesday 3-11, Wednesday Noon-8, Thursday 7am-3pm then back in at midnight until 8am Friday. Oh, but you get a long weekend they exclaim! No you don’t, you’ve worn yourself out and it takes at least a full day to recover.

    Each facility votes on their own schedule, it is not a ‘national standard’ though some will argue it that way. It would help reduce stress if they voted in a more normal schedule. Say something like a week or month on a particular rotation.

    Peer pressure causes controllers to accept the very thing they are complaining about. Another factor is as simple as greed…pure and simple, the love of money. ALL Federal employees (not just controllers) receive 10% differential for the hours they work between 6pm and 6am local time. There are a few (thankfully very few) that would borderline get into fist fights if they believed they weren’t getting ‘their share’ of night differential.

    So the next time NATCA complains about the schedule, would someone in media please have the backbone to ask “Who determines the schedule in the facility” and see if they give an honest answer.

    • 10% differential? I’ve never heard of that as a federal employee. I can put in for comp time for working extra hours, but there isn’t anything on my time sheet that asks if it was between 1800 and 0600 the next day.

    • While it is true the union does make the schedule, management is responsible for staffing. The article also says that controllers can get only 8 hours between shifts, it is actually mandated to be no less than 9 hours. At my last facility before I retired we had actually risen to about 70% staffing, but even at that level we were on mandatory 6 day work weeks. At my facility we had to staff 4 positions for 18 hours a day, we did that usually with 5 controllers in the morning and 5 at night usually 1 or 2 of these controllers were developmental (trainees) who could only work one or two positions. So blame the union all you want, I can tell you with those kind of numbers the schedule was going to suck.

      The problem was a lack of foresight. Reagan fired all the striking controllers in 80, the FAA went on a hiring binge and staffed the agency back up and then exactly 25 years later when all these people were able to retire they implemented draconian work rules and had the gall to call it a contract (the union never signed it and we referred to it as the imposed work rules). So the vast majority of those eligible to retire walked out. My facility went from 25 controllers down to 9 and we never recovered.

      Just my observation after 31 years of doing the job.

  9. When you have a systemic problem, you need a systemic solution. Someone needs to look at how the system works (or doesn’t work) and craft something new.

    The primary job of ATC is to prevent a whole bunch of airliners, coming from all over the world, and converging on only a few airports, from piling into each other all at once. As pilots we all know how to fly the airplanes and get them on the ground safely … so long as another airplane is not trying to do the same thing, in the same place, at the same time. We don’t need ATC to tell us where to go and how to get there but we do need ATC to make sure that 20 other airplanes aren’t already there.

    When we get down to it, the purpose of the TRACON is to provide a bit of “stretch” to the airway “fabric” when the enroute scheduling is just a little bit off. Remember the Chicago TRACON outage several years (decades?) back? Everyone was already well sequenced and the pilots talked to each other, just like at a non-towered airport. No swapped paint.

    This is a sequencing and scheduling problem made inefficient by having humans talking to each other and trying to keep things separate using back-of-the-napkin calculations. This is an area where data link information on spacing would be a huge boon. It is easy to adjust an arrival time when the aircraft is 2 hours out instead of 2 minutes out. This is the kind of thing where computers are better than people.

    So, instead of whining about not enough people trying to do a really hard job, let’s start down the road toward using machines that don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t get tired, and on’t have personal problems that affect concentration, to perform what is, in fact, a mechanical calculation problem.

    And I am not talking about taking the pilot out of the loop, allowing the machines on the ground to control the machines in the air. I am talking about data-linked sequencing information. “You are 30 seconds ahead. Reduce speed by 5 knots.” If sequencing can be tightened up that much, the odds of two airplanes trying to occupy the same space at the same time, approach zero. Oh, and it will make life in the TRACON easier too.

    • There is scheduling technology out there to largely automate arrivals and departures and look at spacing 2 hours out with humans just doing QC. This is one of those problems where the machine is better than the human. Let the better “person” do the job. Datalinking clearances and commands is a much better use of spectrum and would keep voice channels clear for the really important stuff. And modern datalinks don’t step on each other like people do over radios. Well, some do. But there are ACKS built in to ensure arrival, or the waveform itself prevents it, e.g. TDMA.

  10. I was one of the controller trainees in the first FAA class at Oklahoma in August 1981. I made the program, but most of my fellows did not. We had 18 trainees, and 6 of us went on to our new facilities. It was Pass-Fail, meaning you were let go if you scored less than 70% at the end. The FAA has since changed the program and made it a “familiarization” experience, and most trainees just go through the program, after which they are sent to the facilities where they are sorted out. Not everybody who wants to do this job is cut out for it. Anyway, after 43 years in, I had to medically retire. My blood pressure immediately dropped by 25 points. Experience can’t be replaced, but starting in the Bush 2 Administration, controllers were treated so badly by management, most of us gladly retired when we became eligible. My prediction: The FAA will form another work group to study the problem, and waste another 2-3 years doing nothing. It’s going to get worse…

  11. Folks are blaming FAA for a problem created by Congress and the Executive Branch. Remember it was Regan who fired controllers en masse, the very ones who had supported him for president. Congress failed to adequately fund FAA and these days cannot even pass a budget. Everyone bad mouths but no one praises any but the very exceptional/unusual. No FAA manger can overcome this mess so blame those who created it.

  12. Retired ATC Tower Option 24hr Facility. Gregg is right on the money about that work schedule. AKA The Rattler. So maybe someone can tell me why pilots are ejected from the cockpit at 65 and controllers turn in their headsets and are escorted out of the building at 56?
    Conrollers work indoors then go home to their family, dinner & bed. Pilots are on the road 10-15 days a month (?) sleep in hotel rooms, eat restaurant food, Zoom with their familys, fly through turbulent nasty wx at night with an approach to minimums and deal with Karens. Who has the more stressful job? At 56 I was at the top of my game, been there, seen that and knew how to handle it. You want more controllers! Have them retire later like maybe the same age as the pilots.

  13. Marine industry as well has duty period limits and defined rest periods. Having regional discrimination as to work schedules looks to be preventing broadly accepted standards that contribute to workplace wellness and prevent/offset burnout. Everyone wants good money…but at what price? Early in my working career I worked swingshift in a factory. I don’t wish that experience on anyone but I did it to earn enough Dorayme to pay for my flight training. Set defined standards so everyone understands how, what, when and where they need to be in atc. Set it up so that you’d be happy to have your kids work in this industry.

  14. I left ORD Tracon in Dec. ’89 (wow..could that be). But at the time we had about 65% staffing, worked mandatory 6 day weeks, and had from the first day I got there until the day I left. Back up to my first day in FAA, Los Angeles Center, Feb., ’68. Was told, now don’t plan on transferring out, we are critically staffed. I could go on. But the point is ATC, at facilities with busy traffic, have always been in this mess. If a complete overhaul in hiring was done, it would still take 3 or 4 years to see positive results. It is just not going to happen. Never has, never will. Will two run together sometime, statistically probably yeah. But pull up Flight Aware and look at the amazing amount of traffic flying about out there at any time any day, week, month. A collision will be horrible if or when it happens. And all the amazing perfection that was accomplished during the previous years will be long forgotten. But the system even with the horrible staffing where needed is so outstandingly great. And the 6 days a week controllers are the ones making it work. But if it or when it does occur, this has always been a case of “one ah shit cancels 100 attaboys”. Correct the cause but don’t forget all the years of good that first occurred and the goodness that would still be happening. Any busy facility controller past or present can fully explain what is needed. Love NATCA folks, well most, but let the individual troops in the trenches do the explaining, not FAA or NATCA leadership.

  15. Part of NY Tracon’s problem is where it is: with all their comms and radar being remote anyway, it could be placed literally anywhere and still provide the same service. In a nicer, lower cost of living location, they’d have more people willing to go there and fewer people wanting to transfer out ASAP. But shutting the joint down and moving it is likely to be a non-starter for both political and labor reasons. So…lather, rinse, repeat.

    FAA ceded facility management to NATCA years ago, so things like scheduling issues are at best a shared-cause problem. Almost any shift schedule would be better than the one largely in place now – but it stays in place because the union likes it that way, full stop.

    There are indeed still echoes of the 1981 strike because of the concept of “authorized staffing.” If you hire a crapload of controllers all at once, they’re (quite predictably) also likely to retire in bunches – but if you wait until the vacancies occur to hire replacements, you’re always going to be 2-3 years behind. They really need to hire (=overstaff) mid-cycle so instead of having a large group of controllers all hit retirement age together, you’ve got a large number of fully qualified people with 10-ish years experience to smooth out the retirement hit. But FAA won’t do that because that mid-cycle hiring binge would put them over “authorized staffing.” Again, keep doing the same over and over, you’re going to get the same results.

    And while it is true that staffing and training issues have been with ATC forever, we do have systems like TCAS that mitigate the screwups rather well. When I was a controller, you could plausibly have a midair collision – they were far from unheard of, even with air carriers. Now? Not so much – the pilots have self-protection capabilities only dreamed of back in the 1970s-80s, and the safety record shows that they’ve been effective. An indisputably good thing that has no doubt increased the resiliency of the ATC system and saved many lives.

  16. From an insider at a core 30 ARTCC….both as a controller and a senior level manager. Its as bad as you’re reading. I am eligible to retire in 3 years and it cant get here fast enough. Coincidently right about the start of the next huge retirement wave. You think its bad now, wait 5 more years. The amount of ATC Zero (No ATC services at all) events and ATC Limited (typically only tower ops) events that happen as a routine now is astounding. Hope you have your foreflight renewed and your TCAS/TCAD system operational. Its statistically impossible for the FAA to hire and train fast enough to even get close to account for attrition AND the already below staffing numbers. What I expect to happen, is they will lower staffing numbers and force people to work longer stints on position exacerbating fatigue and increasing risk. The previous statement is of my opinion and not that of the FAA.

  17. As a 31-year retired ATCS, SATCS, and 3x Acting Manager who worked all 3 options, I can echo the sentiments above. The FAA since the 1970’s has not be pro-active in hiring in any way, shape or form. Managers spend a lot of time validating their staffing levels forced on them by upper management, many of whom have never worked traffic or managed an ATC facility. I have yet to find any facility that was ever fully staffed. The requirement to get a break every two hours coupled with the mandate for a 30 minute lunch break between your 4th and 6th hour are a small part of the staffing conundrum. Add in liberal leave policies, such as FMLA, FEFFLA, and using sick leave to care for a family member would lead most public companies to overstaff, but not the government. I’m not saying the policies are wrong, just the way the FAA tends to ignore the need for staffing is ignorant at best. I can’t say whether it’s purely the FAA mismanaging the funds given to them each year by Congress or the lack of appropriate funding from Congress because I was never privy to those numbers and the breakdown of where the funds went.

    The facility that has the most traffic and screams the loudest gets the new hires, which is a huge change from the late 70’s when the new hires went to the smaller facilities then moved up after a bit of seasoning. Move money dried up in the early to mid-80’s and the flow of people changed dramatically. The hierarchy of management changed through the 90’s with the additional levels of hubs and terminal or center management facilities, in addition to the regional offices and national offices. There were 14,500 controllers fired during the PATCO strike and the fiscal 2022 controller workforce was 13,693 out of a total workforce of 23,000. For several decades, the philosophy has been overtime is cheaper than another controller salary. This is so wrong for a safety-oriented workplace! Overtime should be outlawed instead as it just causes more fatigue, which is the opposite of what should be promoted. Just my 2 cents worth, you can take it or leave it.

    Oh, and if you think the Rattler schedule was bad, my FSS schedule was 4p-mid, 8a-4p, mid-8a, mid-8a then two days off, unless those days off were Saturday and Sunday, in which case you worked Sunday as your first day back. Once checked out, you were on your own during the shift unless it was 8a-4p from Monday to Friday as the Chief would keep you from going under. We all kept a pocket calendar (1980’s) so we knew what day it was. Add in a newborn at home and the fatigue was crazy!

  18. hi russ,
    How about approving my comments above?

    Also yes good kudos to the flight crew southwest from denver incident.
    great job by the tower/tracon and all the coordination to make this happen, dont forget
    airport ops, and airfield fire rescue.

    These incidents happen all over the usa everyday, lots of times non events.
    only the bigger ones make the news.

    great job to all involved!

    ive had the pleasure to meet many fine airmen/airwomen.
    at airventure.

    tammy jo schultz
    jeff skiles

    the fex crew md-11?
    who got attacked with a hammer.

    many more.

    lots of professionals in aviation working to keep things moving and safe.

  19. russ,
    is there a problem in my earlier longer post??
    is it because i kindly asked people to google and read
    dei in the sky from zerohedge?

    pls moderate my longer post please!

    dont be afraid! the truth always wins!