ATC Attrition Can Be Blunted

 - December 19, 2007, 1:57 PM

The FAA will be able to cope with the loss of almost half of its air traffic controller workforce over the next nine years if it can keep better track of attrition by locale and assess a new controller’s potential to certify at a certain ATC facility level, according to the Transportation Department’s office of inspector general (OIG).

The OIG audited the FAA air traffic controller placement and training process between April last year and this past January and determined that the FAA faces a substantial challenge to hire and train new controllers within a tightly constrained operating budget.

But the OIG acknowledged that the FAA recently made significant progress in this area by renegotiating several pay rules with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) that previously allowed some newly hired controllers to earn base salaries in excess of $79,000 while in training.

The renegotiated rules now allow the FAA to set newly hired controllers’ salaries at levels more commensurate with an entry-level position (from $25,000 to $52,000), and that should help the FAA avoid higher costs as it begins hiring and training greater numbers of new controllers.

Attrition in the FAA’s air traffic controller workforce is expected to rise sharply in upcoming years as the controllers hired in the aftermath of the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike become eligible for retirement. The FAA currently estimates that nearly 7,100 controllers could leave the agency over the next nine years (fiscal years 2004 to 2012). In contrast, the FAA has experienced total attrition of about 2,100 controllers over the past eight years (FY 1996 to 2003).

It is unclear whether the FAA will need to replace all 7,100 controllers on a one-for-one basis, according to the OIG. That will depend on many factors, including future air traffic levels, new technologies and long-term FAA initiatives such as redesigning the national airspace. It is clear, however, that anticipated increases in attrition will force the FAA to begin hiring and training controllers at levels not experienced since the early 1980s.

The FAA hires new controllers from multiple sources. These include controllers from the Defense Department, controllers from the FAA’s contract-tower program, graduates of college training initiative schools–Community College of Beaver County, Pa.; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Minneapolis Community & Technical College Air Traffic Control Training Program; and the University of North Dakota–PATCO controller reinstatements and off-the-street applicants.

Training to become a certified professional controller (CPC) usually consists of training at both the FAA Academy and on-the-job training (OJT) at their assigned facility. Almost half of all new hires attend the academy, regardless of their prior experience. That training can take up to 16 weeks, depending on the hiring source.

Once newly hired controllers complete academy training, they are sent to a facility to begin the OJT process. But the DOT IG said the FAA needs to assess newly hired controllers’ abilities before they are placed, something it does not do now. Currently, it places newly hired controllers based only on where and when vacancies occur, without assessing if they have the knowledge, skills and abilities to certify at their assigned facility. Many of those vacancies occur at some of the FAA’s busiest and most complex facilities.

OJT is the longest portion of new controllers’ training. “At the locations we visited,” the OIG wrote, “the overall time required for newly hired controllers to become certified averaged 3.1 years, but in some cases it took as long as seven years. However, we found that the FAA provides minimal oversight of this portion of training at the national level.”

In general, during OJT trainees receive classroom and simulation training at their assigned facility (primarily through contract instructors) before training on live traffic with a certified controller who is designated as an on-the-job training instructor (OJTI). The OJTIs teach the trainees through a combination of instruction, demonstration and practical application.

Contract instructors are provided through an air traffic international services contract with the Washington Consulting Group. According to the audit, FAA managers support the use of the contract, but the OIG found that the FAA could improve its financial administration of the contract.

Once trainees are assigned to an ATC facility, they are considered “developmental” controllers until they have certified as an air traffic controller (proved they can control air traffic in all sectors of their assigned area). Certified professional controllers who transfer to another facility are considered CPCs-in-training until they have certified on the airspace of the new facility.

The Transportation Department OIG noted that the FAA has concurred with all of the audit’s findings and recommendations. “The actions planned are responsive to our recommendations, and when fully implemented should result in a better placement and training process for new air traffic controllers,” the DOT OIG said.