US controller union flags staffing concerns

A US controller union chief has warned that bureaucratic red tape and arbitrary rules risk making the national controller staffing shortage one of the most critical problems facing the country’s airspace system today.

Speaking at a roundtable policy discussion on FAA’s air traffic controller hiring, staffing and training plans held by a congressional transportation committee on aviation, NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said the situation had reached crisis level.

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He reported that controller staffing has fallen nearly 10 per cent since 2011, and the FAA has missed its hiring goals in each of the last five years.

“With one third of our workforce eligible to retire, the FAA’s bureaucratic structure is failing us,” he said. “In fiscal year 2015, the FAA fell 24 per cent below its staffing goals. If this situation continues unaddressed, we will be hard-pressed to maintain current capacity, let alone expand and modernise the system.”

The NATCA chief said the FAA must take a holistic, collaborative approach to resolve these staffing issues – pointing out that even though it was less than two months into fiscal year 2016 the FAA is already behind its targets with 27 out of 252 available seats at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City gone unfilled.

“Many of our current staffing woes were avoidable,” Rinalsi said. “For example, in the FAA’s most recent experienced controller vacancy announcement, Human Resources (HR) disqualified former FAA controllers who did not attach what HR deemed to be the “correct” personnel form to their applications. However, these former employees did attach an official form proving they had previously worked as FAA air traffic controllers.

“HR issues these forms and they could have easily substituted the correct forms. Instead, they disqualified previously certified controllers. It’s important to note that these positions were not competitively bid, meaning hiring one would not mean excluding another. HR should be the support function, not a bureaucratic gatekeeper that hampers the Air Traffic Organization’s ability to perform the FAA’s mission.”

He said another challenge to increasing staffing is the actual hiring process. “After sequestration cuts and the 2013 government shutdown suspended hiring for 10 months, the FAA expunged a well-qualified candidate list of over 3,000 in order to institute a Biographical Questionnaire (BQ).”

“The FAA lost ground as well as quality candidates in 2014 due to the first BQ. NATCA subsequently worked with the FAA to improve the second BQ used in 2015, and saw better results. Now, at a time when we need to make up for the FAA’s missed hiring targets, HR is attempting to validate a new entrance exam, the Air Traffic Selection and Training exam, otherwise known as the AT-SAT. Ironically, validating a new exam will require over 1,600 controller days outside the operation and thousands of hours of additional controller overtime.”

He said that NATCA was tabling three main recommendations for reversing the staffing shortage. First, FAA should post an open and continuous vacancy announcement for experienced air traffic controllers. Second, FAA needs a streamlined hiring process, specifically to ease the bottlenecks and bureaucratic delays in HR, security, and medical. And third, a less bureaucratic, and more expeditious transfer policy for current FAA controllers — one that takes into account the needs of the entire NAS as a whole, not 315 policies, one for each individual facility. This transfer policy would also encourage experienced controllers at lower level facilities to voluntarily move up, at their own expense, to busier, more complex facilities.

Matthew Hampton, a US Department of Transportation assistant inspector general, told the same committee that the number of fully qualified controllers are “below minimum staffing requirements” at 13 of the nation’s busiest air traffic control facilities including New York, Dallas, Denver and Chicago.

Hampton said the facilities are also under stressed because a large share of their controllers are still being trained and are not yet competent to work on their own. Many of their more experienced controllers are eligible to retire.


Posted in CAAs/ANSPs, News, NextGen, Operations

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