FAA study compares U.S. and foreign ATC

 - October 16, 2006, 7:48 AM

The FAA recently concluded a study that compares the productivity and cost-effectiveness of select U.S. terminal ATC facilities in 2002 with those of similar private or quasi-government-operated non-U.S. facilities. On average, U.S. controllers worked slightly more hours and were 12.5 percent more productive, handling 4,664 movements per year versus 4,164 for their foreign counterparts, but at $36 per movement they were 33.3 percent more costly than foreign controllers, who averaged $27.

The study was aimed at identifying and analyzing factors affecting the productivity and cost-effectiveness of terminal ATC facilities to develop a performance benchmark for terminal operations.

The FAA study compared select pairs of facilities that had similar layouts, arrivals and departure numbers and traffic mix. The six pairs were New Orleans and Dublin, Ireland; Dulles and Toronto; Tampa and Sydney, Australia; Philadelphia and Frankfurt, Germany; Portland, Ore.; and Copenhagen, Denmark; and San Diego and Auckland, New Zealand.

The 120-page study contains an almost bewildering array of different comparison yardsticks against which the 12 locations are measured. This is a data set that only a human resources analyst could knit together into a coherent whole. For example, what the study describes as the “average employment cost per controller in operations” indicates a figure of $160,000 at Dulles but just over half that amount, $87,000, at Toronto.

San Diego’s and Auckland’s figures were even more disparate: $147,000 and $53,000, respectively, yet–on average–the New Zealanders handled around 50 percent more movements than their California counterparts. Perhaps the fellows down under were simply better rested, with 122 regular days off per year, plus 11 public holidays and 33 vacation days, while the San Diego controllers had to get by with the FAA’s miserly 127 to 140 days, presumably depending on seniority.

San Diego, in fact, ranked last in the movement-handling stakes, clearly out-hustled by the Portland crew which, with essentially the same number of controllers– 6.2 versus San Diego’s 6.0–appeared to move airplanes twice as fast and topped all other facilities in the study in this category. Perhaps it was that extra statistical one-fifth of a controller that made the difference.

Differences at overseas facilities were equally marked. Sydney controllers each handled an average of 3,083 aircraft movements per year, while those at Dublin moved 6,496. And while Sydney had around 250,000 movements compared with Dublin’s 180,000, at the busiest time of day Sydney had seven tower and 11 approach controllers, while Dublin managed with 4.5 in the tower and just three handling approach control.

Dublin’s controllers had more time off per year than their Aussie counterparts, with 171 days total, including sick leave, versus 150 in Sydney. Yet neither could match Toronto’s controllers, who led the list with a total of 186 days, or a tidy half year plus a week. And of the six pairs, only Frankfurt and Philadelphia seemed to be fairly consistently matched in most categories.

Yet these oddities appear to average out in the long run and, certainly, none of the locations has earned a reputation within the pilot community as providing anything other than excellent service. And the study itself–formally called the International Terminal Air Traffic Control Benchmark Pilot Study– is a fascinating look behind the scenes at terminal operations.