FAA off course on air traffic controllers, The Hill


When you cross the threshold of a major airliner and peer into the cockpit as the pilots systematically go through their preflight procedures, you feel confident that the airline upon which you are traveling has the most experienced and well-trained pilots available.  But the pilot is just part of a team of professionals who are going to get you to your destination safely and (hopefully) on time.

While pilots command more than 87,000 flights in the U.S. every day, our nation’s air traffic controllers are charged with keeping those aircrafts moving through airspace safely and efficiently.  In densely populated skies, it is essential that this team of highly trained professionals speaks the same language and anticipates the other’s moves.  This synergy only comes from experience and lots of critical training.

While safety remains of the utmost importance, efficiency however, has taken a far back seat. This year, U.S. flights experienced their worst rate of delays in 20 years, with nearly 1 in 4 domestic flights being delayed.

Now the federal government is going to make matters even worse. The thousands of air traffic controllers who were hired during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike are reaching mandatory retirement.

Over the past several years, the FAA bewilderingly has not hired or trained enough new controllers to make up for these well-documented and impending mass retirements. Further, the efficacy of the FAA’s current controller workforce has come into question even more, as the FAA actually reduced controller hiring, which now requires them to play catch-up with a surge of new training over the next two years to fill critical soon-to-be vacant controller positions.

As if current air traffic delays and the lack of controllers training weren’t enough, the FAA is now totally revamping the way air traffic controllers are hired.  Air traffic control is one of the most demanding and stressful jobs in the world; controllers require detailed knowledge of aviation, high-intelligence and lightning-fast analytical skills to do the job well.

Astonishingly, instead of hiring the most highly qualified and knowledgeable college graduates who have been certified from air traffic control accredited schools via the FAA’s Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI), as well as operationally qualified ex-military controllers, most of the FAA’s newly-hired candidates have no aviation experience and therefore will require an increased amount of costly training.

Hiring, however, is not the only issue the FAA is facing when it comes to its air traffic controllers. Managing their training is also a critical concern. Recently, there have been criticisms by Congress and the Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) about this skewed and costly training process. The issue, according to IG reports, is the inability of the FAA to improve its success and management of training, define the most critical training requirements and develop training innovations. This last point is key.  A major goal of the FAA, through its current training program, was to reduce its training costs by developing and implementing new innovative training techniques. Yet, to date, the FAA has not implemented any of those new training innovations and consequently, has not reduced its high training costs.

Furthermore, FAA plans to fundamentally change its training program at the precise time we need the FAA to accelerate its training of qualified Air Traffic Controllers. Changing course now would lead to a higher failure rate of air traffic controllers. If it takes controllers three or four years, rather than two, to become certified, the FAA will certainly see greater inefficiency, which ultimately will yield a higher cost to taxpayers and could mean more delays at the airport for the traveling public.

Moreover, the FAA has not completely defined the training requirements or costs associated with bringing these new controllers online.  As an airline pilot of 17 years and former Vice Chair of Aviation on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I find each of these moves by the FAA perplexing at best. Collectively, these decisions could spell an absolute disaster for the traveling public and grossly increase costs for the American taxpayer.

It is incomprehensible to me that the FAA is seemingly willing to play with safety, increase travel delays and burden a currently strained workforce.

Therefore, I urge the FAA not to overhaul its current training program when we need it most. Changing course will only slow down the entire process when—now, more than ever—we need to be expediting training.

Cravaack served in the House from 2011 to 2013. He is also a retired 17-year airline pilot and former Navy captain. 


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