Improve Safety By Reducing Training? FAA Addresses Controller Shortage


Well, it seems like a strange strategy for what is ultimately a safety initiative but nothing else has worked so maybe it’s worth a try, provided it’s monitored carefully. A few days after a damning report from the National Airspace System Safety Review Team essentially told the FAA that the clock is ticking on a major aviation catastrophe in the U.S., the agency had no choice but to respond. On Friday it came out with some plans to address a disturbing spike in serious incursions and loss-of-separation incidents across the country over the past year.

Most of it was low-hanging fruit and the re-announcement of already approved programs but it boils down to a staffing issue. Despite the agency’s claims of an aggressive recruiting campaign, the report says some ATC facilities are short a quarter of the staff they should have. There will be new simulators and training centers, but only one initiative is aimed at directly increasing the number of butts in training positions and it seems curious at best.

Essentially, the agency is going to reduce the amount of training some new-hire controllers receive to make room to train more rookies. It’s a child of the agency’s odd mix of prerequisites for ATC trainees and a complication of that process that might fly in the face of the central goal of sharpening up ATC safety.

Most government jobs with the pay grade of experienced controllers (130-150K not including overtime) require a university degree. No question, no debate. Indeed, many trainee controllers do have degrees and the agency has carved out a special place for those who graduate from approved collegiate and university aviation programs that stress air traffic control training.

Graduates of those programs, under the Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), are guaranteed a shot at a training slot as a controller. But an AT-CTI degree or any other education is not a requirement to become a controller. Essentially anyone under the age of 30 (the maximum age for most new hires) who can convince the recruiters that they have a work history, education background or combination of both that gives them the right stuff can also be selected.

Approval by candidates on either stream is no guarantee of 130K, benefits and a retirement plan, however. Applicants have to pass an eight-hour exam and undergo psychological assessment to get to the next step and that’s no picnic, either. From there, would-be controllers go to what is known simply as “The Academy” or “Oklahoma City.”

Controllers I know get a wistful, kind of far-off look on their faces when they talk about what is essentially boot camp for the world’s most stressful job. There, the university kids leave behind frat parties and weekend football games to earn their first stripe, the grudging approval of former controllers-turned-instructors whose vast knowledge of the system and lexicon of war stories gives the neophytes a tiny taste of what they’re in for on the job—and the hacks they need to survive it. About half of applicants don’t make it.

Those who do especially well in their AT-CTI university courses get to skip almost half of the academy, likely, and I’m guessing here, because after four years in a university aviation program, they know a windsock from a taxiway light. Those privileged few spend three months in Oklahoma City while most endure five months along with the “off-the-street” hires. I couldn’t find any data on who does better at the academy, the university kids or the life experience recruits, but the 50 percent who make the cut then head into the real world and the unending scrutiny of qualified controllers who will monitor their every move. That can last one to three years, depending on the career path the rookie is pursuing.

But under the new measures announced by the FAA, those who go through the AT-CTI program will skip Oklahoma City entirely and head straight to on-the-job training. As part of that, the agency pledges to help the universities ensure they deliver position-ready trainees to the nation’s ATC facilities, but it hasn’t said how it will do that.

The upshot is that with fewer university-stream hopefuls at the academy, there will theoretically be more seats for those who qualify on their life experience to date. And that’s where cynical readers with long memories may, rightly or wrongly, start connecting the dots to a controversy involving the AT-CTI program about 10 years ago.

At that time (the good old days when all ATC positions were filled with dedicated controllers in their prime and supremely qualified prospects were stacked like cordwood beside the door) the administration took a look at the sea of pasty stubbled faces that dominated its ATC facilities. It decided to make it easier for women, people of color and others with single-digit representation in the facilities to become controllers.

It canceled the interview guarantee for AT-CTI grads and decreed that selection for Oklahoma City be based solely on the applicants’ psychological profiles. The advantage for degree holders, the administration decided, presented an unfair barrier to Americans who historically have lower participation in higher education. It was about leveling the playing field.

Well, it was also about cutting the legs out from under hundreds of students and recent graduates without notice and immediately making dozens of well-developed and accepted programs instantly irrelevant at universities and colleges that had built their businesses around them. The initiative collapsed like cheap lawn furniture, as it should, and life went on. Except the status quo led, at least in part, to the current staff shortage and the inference that it’s behind airliners almost trading paint on or near some of the country’s biggest airports.

So, this latest idea hinges on the universities taking on the role of those cigar-chomping (minus the cigars) veterans who drill the knowledge, pride, confidence, swagger and perhaps most importantly, dedication into the kids who will ultimately hold the lives of real people in their eyes, ears and mouse fingers. It might work and if it does, paving the way for more diversity might be the unintended but delightful icing on the cake. If, however, it’s a cynical second attempt to satisfy a political agenda, the price may be too high to even ponder.

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. This sounds to me like the current do more with less philosophy. In just about every field. I myself was told at one job to just get up into the loader, move the controls around, and I’ll figure it out. Only nobody told me that they had 3 different brands and types of loaders…..

    • “Back for up, ahead for down. And uh, oh yeah, you may need to use your feet a little. And they’re all the same – sorta.”

  2. Sounds like you’ve never visited an FAA-approved CTI program as I have while I chaired the University Aviation Association Flight Education Committee. Perhaps you should do some in-person journalistic investigation before saying they’re nothing but parties and football.

  3. 1500 hr rule for pilots? What’s good for the goose, my friend. Why can the FAA solve its staffing shortage with reduced qualifications but the private sector forces folks with no business being instructors into instructing just to build an arbitrary number of hours to qualify to apprentice under a captain?

    Double Standard.

  4. Are we all not looking at the real issue here? That being too damn many aircraft flying at one time? It seems there is no limit to how many flights airlines are allowed. With the thousands of new orders for aircraft, the issue will only get worse with time. I think it’s time for the politicians and bureaucrats to do their job and rein in aviation. Perhaps the stress of this job is due to the fact it’s nearly impossible to separate them all. (aircraft) And yes, the clock is ticking.

      • Joe and John, have you driven your car lately? There are more people everywhere. Putting limits on when, where, and how often people can travel is a losing strategy.

      • First, we could stop creating incentives to concentrate the destinations (hubs, mega cities, closing airports, destroying private aviation, subsidies to tourism in dense areas) and increase the number of flights by using smaller and smaller aircraft (change taxing scheme from ticket tax to landing fees or other methods, end gate hoarding games).

    • Their job isn’t to “rein in” aviation.

      Their job is to make it safe. Not quash it’s growth. They have nearly unlimited access to piles of “other people’s money”, and should be able to handle what the system requires.

      If they can’t, we’ll end up with a system like Canada’s, where “the chosen” private sector contractors get it done, but with added layers of “user fees” for things (like national infrastructure) that SHOULD be funded by the taxes we already pay, instead of what they’re wasted on now.

      Stop the waste, and the DEI crap, and put qualified people in charge of hiring and training other qualified people, and this kind of problem tends to work itself out.

      Like the military, and the airlines, this kind of job is NOT the place for “social experimentation” and “social justice.”

      Recruitment wouldn’t be so bad if people knew that merit and performance would govern their careers, not “filling squares.”

      But, alas, it’s the government, after all.

    • But I thought ADS-b was the cure all for increased traffic? The same ADS-b that the FAA required everyone to have, no exceptions!

  5. As a busy TRACON controller/supervisor hired 6 months after the PATCO strike and retired after 36 years, I have strong feelings on this subject. FAA hiring and training has been a demonstrated failure for the past 20 years. Success in this occupation is all about mental acuity and an ability to think critically and make decisions in 4 dimensions (including time). I’ll never believe that these skills can be taught in an academic setting to people without an innate ability. Rigorous testing and screening, long before enrollment in any college curriculum or training program is the only answer, but FAA management continues to believe that anyone can succeed with education. That’s simply not the case and the revolving door of failed trainees tells the tale. Shotgunning trainees to facilities will only clog the training pipeline and will lead to further disaster.

    • Yep, 31 years in Center, tower, TRACON, controller/sup/acting manager, now happily retired. Might as well take the people who are best in Tetris as send them to the academy, although the academy shows who can handle stress under pressure. Didn’t matter if people had a PHD, they still may or may not pass the academy and move on to a facility. It all came down to the ability to visualize the airspace and the time/speed/distance of the moving aircraft. The academy quit teaching about aircraft characteristics years ago, so the CTI grads may be just as adept. Now if the FAA will get off its belief that paying OT on a regular basis is better than filling out the controller rolls, then we’ll get somewhere. I remain skeptical.

    • As a pilot of more than 30 years, I agree with your position. I have played several air traffic control computer games and can run them pretty well. Being a pilot I can think quite well in four dimensions, so theoretically I should be able to be a controller. But, after taking a couple tours of the Houston TRACON, and seeing the controllers in action, I think I would wash out pretty fast. For one thing, I doubt that I could handle the ever-present psychological pressure of knowing that peoples’ lives are at stake with every move. Maybe you can train people to understand the blips and keep them separated, but I believe a person’s ability to handle pressure and responsibility is something you are born with. I’m not sure exactly how you test and evaluate that aspect, but “simplifying” the training probably won’t do it.

  6. FAA should begin by hiring ONLY applicants who scored %100 on the Air Traffic Skills Assessment Test (AT-SAT). Nothing less will work. Are you listening FAA?

  7. A controller I know did some recruiting for Nav Canada. He was at a university job fair and set up a table with 9 pencils scattered randomly on the candidates side of the table. Most candidates ignored them but some gathered them up and lined them up in a neat row on the side of the table. Those were the ones he spent extra time with in the hopes they would apply for a job.

  8. In the movie “The Last Starfighter”, an intergalactic federation, desperate for pilots with special skills in high speed multidimensional warfare, sets up a special video game in a small village on earth. A young man with just the right kind of brain and reaction times plays the game. His scores get better and better. Finally an ambassador from that distant federation visits earth and desperately tries to recruit that young man with that special brain and the skills to go with it.

    I’m sure that there are air traffic control simulators and games out there that could be used to similar effect. There’s no question in my mind that it takes a special kind of brain and skill set to be a controller, and I don’t think it takes a college education to find those people and prepare them to be successful at a TRACON or Center. To find those with the right skills but with no interest in pursuing a college education, why not make some video games so real that they can become recruiting tools. If some gamers do particularly well, let the game end by a message: “You have the skills to be an air traffic controller. Contact an ATC recruiter at 800-555-0000 or”

    • I do recall an ATC game from many years back. (It had a text interface, so that dates it) I doubt it was FAA-developed. But there are lots of games that feature 3D movement and precise timing. The skills probably transfer to ATC.
      The FAA might do well to advertise jobs on gaming-related YouTube and twitch channels, as well as gaming websites and e-sports broadcasts…

  9. In 2016, as required by a law passed by Congress, FAA initiated a pool process in which applicants were grouped into one of two hiring pools based on applicant background. Pool 1 was composed of qualified veterans and AT-CTI graduate applicants were grouped into one of two hiring pools based on applicant background.
    Pool 2 was composed of all other applicants.
    Hiring in equal proportion from both pools was also specified. In 2017 FAA began tore-establish relationships with the AT-CTI schools under Congressional mandate.

  10. For many schools, standards have been reduced and attendance is optional, all to prevent some people from “feeling” left out and not receiving a diploma. This type of thinking will not prove to be successful in aviation.

  11. How about the FAA increase the age for new hires and mandatory retirement? Really if you are 31 you are too old? Is this a controller union or government mandate?

    • 27 years FAA plus 4 years contract controller. Having the mandatory retirement age of 56 limits the maximum hiring age to 30 if the controller is to have a 25 year career. The CTI program was designed to help with the demand starting in the 2000’s. It was marginal successful. The schools have no incentive to wash people out that have no chance of success. Sending them directly to facilities will cause a higher level of pressure on those local training departments. If the CTI people are sent straight to busy facilities, A80, N90, etc. The chances of success are perhaps even less.

    • When I retired as an Controller from the Air Force I of course was over 30 so a flight service station job was all I qualified for. Turn down the job offer because I didn’t want to work in CT. Of course during the controller strike I and many other military controllers were allowed to work FAA facilities.

      I understand the retirement reason deal for 25 years for a controller though. I ended up flying for a large regional airline eventually.

  12. Sorry in advance for the thread drift but now that Paul has left to whom do I send an article for consideration as a guest blog ?

  13. For all the talk about the hiring and training process in the article and comments, much context is lacking.
    Does the Academy currently have a backlog of students waiting? Will the FAA ensure that the college programs teach everything on the Academy syllabus? What about raising the mandatory retirement and hiring age? How do the FAA recruiters look for possible applicants?

  14. I find it very interesting that no mention was made of any dispensation for currently licensed pilots. It would seem to be a population in possession of advanced training over an ab initio prospect and consequently should be being sought after. I bet a lot of private pilots would love to work in ATC.

    I understand that some aviation focused schools may provide a level of training in advance of ab initio, however I believe a fairer way to do this is a test. The above mentioned group of licensed pilots could have an equal shot with folks from schools. And someone who trained themselves would as well. If their training equals that of a school – that’s what matters. A test – a big honkin unpleasant test – would be a valuable tool in evaluating candidates.

    And while we’re at it, can we please quit calling these aviation schools Universities? Examine the difference between a University and a college and a school – and you’ll find that these are schools. There’s nothing wrong with being schools. Let’s just call them the right thing. Especially in these times when a “University Education” has lost most of any value it may have once had.

    And my pet peeve – no other company in the universe has as part of their qualifications that you be able to retire with them when they hire you. It’s stupid – and inhibits the function of the agency. If someone wants to work for the FAA for five years – let them. I would suggest a commitment at first in order to recoup the cost of training. But after that.. Someone who is 25 when hired is not committed to stay to retirement and I’d wager probably more than half don’t. Refusing to hire anyone whose goal isn’t retirement is folly. Mind you other US Government agencies do it, but it’s stupid for them too. The only difference with the FAA is people could die because of it.

    • There is no requirement for a controller to stay employed with the FAA for an entire career. There are other opportunities, DoD, private contractors, or overseas. No one said that a person is required to stay. But it does take a huge amount of dedication to get to the Certified Professional Controller level. It is hard to simply give that up.
      That being said, I have a buddy that did just that. He was a pilot for a regional in the 2000’s and just quit the FAA to take an FO job for a major carrier.

    • Your comments are in error, in some of your statements.
      The FAA does not ” require ” any new hires in any position to work forward to a mandatory retirement and pension [ aged 56 / 25 years of service.]
      You can leave after 5 years, 2 years, 9 years or whatever you choose; just know that under Federal law, your ” pension ” rights are not the same as an individual doing the 25.

      Any ” academic institution ” that grants a degree ; 2 year associate degree, 4 year Bachelor’s Degree, or post graduate Master’s Degree,PhD, will fall into one of those selected categories of University, College, etcetera.
      Many of these academic institutions in the ATC program business also offer degrees in business administration, etcetera.

  15. @BillM@bbgun6: 40 years ago the USArmy commissioned a desktop version of the “Battlezone” arcade video game for use in screening for and initial training of tank crews. I am a fierce advocate for EEO and a fierce opponent of affirmative action. If collegiate public administration and other graduate schools had any integrity, there would be volumes of research concluding with the negative public safety impacts of racial/gender diversity goal hiring and “assisted” OJT and retention… but this topic is actively discouraged by dissertation committees. Ample real world evidence exists such as DCA91MA018 and ATL94LA077.

  16. “I am a fierce advocate for EEO”

    All too many view that as meaning the Outcomes, not the Opportunities, should be equal.

    The NFL can give this old man all of the Opportunities in the world. The Outcome will always be the same. I won’t make the cut.

    • Meritocracy, Jethro: meritocracy …not reckless PC/DEI charity handing out life & death responsibilities to minimally qualified applicants bypassing their betters. As with my two examples, eventually quota policies lead to downstream disasters large and small.