Every day that the government stays closed, Steve Wallace, an air-traffic controller in Miami with 22 years of experience, gets more nervous.
A perfect storm — the delay in training new controllers because of the government shutdown and sequestration, combined with a glut of air-traffic controllers becoming eligible for retirement — means that the U.S. is facing a serious air-traffic-controller shortage in the next two or three years. For flyers this could mean delays, or worse.
The problem is many years in the making. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan permanently fired more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers, and the entire controller workforce had to be replaced in 1982. Starting about 10 years ago, that generation began to retire. Now the trend is accelerating.
There are currently 14,602 air-traffic controllers. As of Aug. 1, 3,133 of them are eligible to retire. Based on 2012 estimates from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), that number will be close to 4,500 — a third of the air-traffic-control workforce — by 2016.
The FAA, the Government Accountability Office and air-traffic controllers have known about this crisis for years. In 2004, the number of air-traffic controllers in many regions fell to startling lows. That same year, because of a communication breakdown between controllers and pilots, there were two high-profile controller errors at LAX, including a near collision between two commercial jets. At the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, where Wallace was working at the time, a controller monitoring 44 planes at once when he should have been watching 23, lost track of two. Luckily, nothing happened, but the FAA quickly hired 100 new controllers for Miami from 2005 to 2006, according to Wallace, who is the Miami representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).
The inspector general of the FAA has pointed to myriad problems with the FAA training program. Because of the government shutdown, the FAA was not able to respond to requests for comment for this story. The Flight Safety Foundation did not respond either. Airlines for America (A4A), the airline trade association, wouldn’t comment directly on whether the training delays would eventually lead to delays in airports or safety concerns. “A4A continues to work in close coordination with the FAA to maintain the safest aviation system in the world,” a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail. It is important to view NATCA members’ comments in context — it is in the association’s best interest to increase the number of controllers. Still, the association raises a chilling set of concerns.
NATCA spokesman Doug Church says the FAA, under the Obama Administration, has been working to fix the staffing problem. But the progress came to a halt with the government shutdown and sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that went into effect in March. “We had work groups scheduled on how we would develop training, seasoning and placement in 2014, that had to be shelved. No one at the FAA who can do those meetings is working currently.”
With every day that goes by, argues Church, chances of fixing this problem are slipping. The facility in Oklahoma City where new controllers go for their first three months of training has been closed since March thanks to sequestration, and it cannot reopen until the government does.
The problem doesn’t stop there. After their three months at the academy, air-traffic controllers do textbook and on-the-job training for about three years before they can operate alone. Because of the shutdown, controllers in the early stages of training are furloughed, delaying the time when they’ll be able to function fully on their own. “So many pieces in the machine have to work in unison,” says Church. “There are not enough people back in the pipeline.”
Meanwhile, air-traffic controllers are retiring in droves. At the Miami center, Wallace says, 18 air-traffic controllers retired on a single day at the end of September, amounting to a combined 550 years of air-traffic-control experience. Thanks to that and other retirements and attrition, Miami has dropped from 260 controllers at the start of this year to 214. And 75 more of them are eligible to retire. With the shutdown, the hope that they might replace some of the people they’ve lost is dwindling — the FAA has imposed a hiring freeze since March that can’t be lifted until the government opens.
That means air-traffic controllers will have to do more with less. “There are more airplanes with less people to do it. The technology didn’t change. What changed is I’m working more airplanes,” says Wallace. “If I’m juggling four oranges today safely, and someone tosses me a fifth, at one point I’m going to miss one. We are going to have number of errors like two airplanes not separated by the required separation. How close? I don’t know.”
To make matters worse, as the job becomes more stressful, controllers tend to retire earlier. As Wallace, who went home “drenched in sweat” every night during the staff shortage in 2004, puts it, “No one wants to be that last cook left in the kitchen.”