Air Travel Has a Serious Problem That Will Take Years to Fix

How did we get to where we are, and what does it mean for the flying public?

Plane flying past air traffic control tower with storm clouds in the background

The outlook for air travel is stormy.

Photo by Shutterstock

Last week, as weather and airline staffing woes roiled air travel yet again, fliers hoping for a post-summer respite got some unwelcome news: the air traffic controller shortage is so severe that it could hobble airline operations for the next five years—or more, according to industry officials.

How bad is it? As Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg revealed earlier this year, there are some 3,000 unfilled controller positions in a workforce that should number over 14,000 full-time employees. Currently there are around 11,000 controllers, with several thousand at various stages of the training process. And the shortfall hits particularly hard on key regions, including New York City, where the three major airports—JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark—have among the worst delays in the country and, it’s often said, are the cause of around half of all delays nationwide.

At a key Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facility in New York, only 54 percent of available controller positions are filled, which led the agency to request that airlines voluntarily cut back about 10 percent of their flights in the region—initially through September 15. The FAA recently conceded this short-term solution didn’t go far enough, and extended the flight cut program for another year. And it’s unclear how much difference it made, if any, in what for many travelers was another summer-from-hell.

This caused much hand wringing at an aviation confab in Washington last week, where several airline executives said the resulting uncertainty over the system’s capacity could make it difficult to plan schedules. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes, for example, went so far as to say, “We’re selling flights we know we won’t be able to operate because of ATC [air traffic control] challenges.”

Secretary Buttigieg did have some promising news right after Labor Day, when he announced that 1,500 air traffic controllers had been hired this year after an aggressive recruiting campaign and a raise in starting salary to $127,000 a year. But he cautioned that the flying public shouldn’t expect quick results, noting that with the extensive training it “can take as long as it does to get a law degree”—three years.

We’re selling flights we know we won’t be able to operate because of ATC [air traffic control] challenges.
JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes

And now, a possible government shutdown could throw a wrench in the secretary’s plans to ramp up training; the full-time controllers already on the job wouldn’t be severely affected due to their status as essential safety workers, but the training of new hires could grind to a halt (which in fact did happen in the 2019 shutdown).

How did the air traffic controller shortage get so bad?

For the cause of the current crisis, the answer given by many industry and government experts can be summed up in one word: COVID. Among the effects: a wave of retirements, on top of concerns about COVID spreading around air traffic control facilities and classrooms, which made it difficult for the FAA to maintain and train the minimum number of controllers to man the most critical facilities, according to a recent Department of Transportation Inspector General’s Audit.

But skeptics say that conclusion is too simplistic. The factors that brought us to this point were in play well before the pandemic delivered a body blow to aviation in 2020, they say.

In fact, complaints about the woeful state of the nation’s air traffic control are nothing new: 15 years ago, a shortage of controllers and a rise in air delays pushed the air traffic controller issue to the top of then president-elect Barack Obama’s agenda. Back then, in 2008, a major sore point was that controllers had worked for two years without a contract, and workplace burnout was a hot button issue. (The controllers’ union got its contract with better pay and conditions the following year.) And in the past decade, the feds have ramped up their ongoing “Next Gen” project to replace an antiquated ground-based radar system with satellite technology to guide planes—but it’s still not complete.

But some say the roots of the present imbroglio go back even further, to August 4, 1981, when 12,000 controllers walked off the job after their demands for shorter workweeks and higher pay were rejected. They were famously fired by President Reagan (as federal employees, they are forbidden by law from striking); airlines were forced to ground a third of their fleets while new controllers were rushed through training and into the towers. In three years, some 9,000 replacements were on the job (many of the strikers never went back), and that mass hiring created a demographic bubble whose consequences continue to be felt, creating periodic shortfalls when the bulk of controllers reach their retirement age of 56. (Air traffic controllers are eligible to retire after 20 years if they are over 50, or at any point after 25 years of service.) Current conditions are such that some controllers report they are working 60-hour work weeks and have had to postpone vacations.

“They are overworked, stressed, and some are resentful of not being able to take time off,” says William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. “You have to worry about the long-term effect on morale and the possible impact on safety.”

Two American Airlines airplanes taxing at a foggy airport

Air traffic controllers play a critical role in making sure there are no runway incursions.

Photo by Damian Hutter/Unsplash

Are there safety concerns for air travelers due to the current staffing crisis?

Runway “incursions”—defined by the FAA as the “incorrect presence” of a plane or other moving object on an active runway—are an increasing concern in the industry.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says it is currently investigating seven runway incidents that occurred in the first half of 2023 that it deems “serious,” meaning that there was the possibility of a catastrophic outcome. Last February, two planes came close to colliding on a runway at Austin Bergstrom Airport; more recently, there was another near-miss at San Diego’s airport. And there’s an even higher number of worrisome mishaps on the ground that don’t get widely reported—in July, there were 46 in that month alone, as documented in an investigation by the New York Times.

“There is no question that we are seeing too many close calls,” FAA management said earlier this year in a statement to its employees.

Air traffic controllers aren’t responsible for all runway incidents—they share the blame with pilots and errant airport vehicles—but the current staffing crisis in the control tower isn’t helping matters. While in all of these cases, tragedy was avoided and the system ultimately worked, the FAA has launched a series of runway safety meetings at 90 airports across the United States to help avoid future mishaps.

How will the air traffic challenges get resolved?

One promising development is the recent nomination of Michael Whitaker as FAA administrator, a post that has been vacant for more than a year and a half. Whitaker, a seasoned airline executive who has also worked in the FAA, has already drawn strong statements of support from the aviation world. One of those came from Rich Santa, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, who called on the nominee to “address the longstanding and ongoing controller staffing crisis and more recent safety incidents.”

Pending FAA reauthorization legislation also includes added funding to beef up the controllers’ ranks.

But even with an expected hiring binge, it will be several years before a new class of controllers can make a dent in the shortage. And meanwhile, the public is still waiting for the fully modernized air traffic management system that was promised decades ago under the rubric of “NextGen.” The goal is simple: to allow planes to fly closer to one another without compromising safety.

You have to worry about the long-term effect on morale and the possible impact on safety.
William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project

To do that, the complex U.S. air travel system (with more than 5,000 commercial airports, 520 air traffic control towers, and 45,000 daily flights) is undergoing a transformation from a World War II–era network of radar towers to a space-based tracking system. Using new, more advanced technology, aircraft can beam their coordinates to GPS satellites, which in turn send them to other planes and to controllers, providing a more accurate picture of the surrounding airspace. The new system will allow more planes to land and take off at any given time at busy airports, and it would also help prevent runway incursions. Yet momentum for this ambitious project has ebbed and flowed, along with fights over who’s going to foot the bill.

But whenever it is finally fully installed, one thing will still be needed: enough air traffic controllers to monitor flights.

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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