Controller Hiring on Track but New York Tracon Far Understaffed

 - April 12, 2023, 10:22 AM
Air traffic control centers in the U.S. operate at 81 percent of their full-employment levels. Staffing at the New York Tracon remains at 54 percent. (Photo: American Airlines)

The FAA remains on track to meet its goal of hiring 1,500 air traffic controllers this year following its receipt of 58,000 applications in 2022, according to the agency. Nevertheless, shortages continue, particularly at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facilities, prompting it to relax slot controls at New York LaGuardia (LGA) and Kennedy Airports (JFK) and Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C.

According to FAA data, nationwide Certified Professional Controller (CPC) staffing averages 81 percent of the agency's target while the New York Tracon sits at about 54 percent, largely due to training capacity deficits resulting from temporary safety mitigations put in place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the FAA claims that dedicated training initiatives have reduced most of the training backlog, the New York Tracon remains woefully understaffed.

Although the National Air Traffic Controllers Association declined AIN's request for comment, its president, Richard Santa, called the FAA’s plan to increase hiring next year to 1,800 “a positive development” in recent testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation. However, he warned that hiring more trainees in the short term will not immediately solve the staffing crisis because it takes one to three years of on-the-job training for controllers to become fully certified after graduating from the FAA’s training academy in Oklahoma.

In response, the FAA has granted waivers to United and American Airlines that allow for each to voluntarily return 10 percent of their slots at JFK, LGA, and DCA from May 15 through September 15 without risk of forfeiture. The FAA generally follows IATA guidelines for slot rules at what it categorizes as Level 3 airports, where insufficient infrastructure or government-imposed conditions make it impossible to meet demand. Under normal circumstances, airlines at Level 3 airports must use their slots at least 80 percent of the time during the allocation period or risk losing them.

For its part, American Airlines will reduce flights at LaGuardia and Newark International Airport (EWR)—a non-slot-controlled, Level 2 facility where the airlines collaborate with an FAA schedule facilitator to ensure that they don’t compromise capacity. United Airlines said it would cut its schedule from its Newark hub from 438 to 408 flights a day while also reducing frequencies between LaGuardia and Washington Dulles Airport. Delta, meanwhile, hasn’t yet announced any schedule changes but said it would notify the FAA of any cuts by the April 30 deadline the agency set for airlines to request slot waivers.

To compensate for the resulting frequency cuts, the airlines said they would fly larger airplanes on several routes. In fact, United has said it would manage to increase its seat capacity by 2 percent for the summer season by “upgauging” from regional jets to mainline narrowbodies, for example.