Ensuring adequate staffing and training for air traffic controllers—an essential part of maintaining the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS)—has been a challenge for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), especially at the Nation’s most critical facilities. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the Agency’s ability to maintain the required number of controllers at these facilities. Given the importance of minimizing the risks to the continuity of air traffic operations, as well as the potential impact of COVID 19 on staffing and training, we initiated this audit. Our objectives were to (1) assess FAA’s efforts to ensure that critical air traffic control facilities have an adequate number of controllers and (2) identify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on FAA’s controller training program.
What We Found
FAA has made limited efforts to ensure adequate controller staffing at critical air traffic control facilities. The Agency also has yet to implement a standardized scheduling tool to optimize controller scheduling practices at these facilities, and FAA officials disagree on how to account for trainees when determining staffing numbers. As a result, FAA continues to face staffing challenges and lacks a plan to address them, which in turn poses a risk to the continuity of air traffic operations. For example, we determined that 20 of 26 (77 percent) critical facilities are staffed below the Agency’s 85-percent threshold, with New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and Miami Tower at 54 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Additionally, COVID-19 led to training pauses over a period of nearly 2 years—significantly increasing controller certification times. FAA will not know the full impact of the training suspension on certification times for several years because training outcomes vary widely, and it can take more than 3 years to train a controller. Due to these uncertain training outcomes, FAA cannot ensure it will successfully train enough controllers in the short term.
FAA concurred with our two recommendations to improve its ability to ensure adequate staffing at its critical facilities. We consider both recommendations as resolved but open pending completion of the planned actions.
Closed on 12.06.2023
No. 1 to FAA
Complete a comprehensive review of the model for distribution of certified professional controllers (CPCs) for air traffic control facilities and update interim CPC staffing levels as necessary.
No. 2 to FAA
Implement a new labor distribution system that includes features such as timekeeping, overtime and Controller-in-Charge tracking, and real-time leave balances.