Author Topic: Paving the Way for a Controller Ramp-up  (Read 10590 times)

Offline KB4TEZ

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Paving the Way for a Controller Ramp-up
« on: May 07, 2024, 05:58:09 AM »

May 1, 2024
The FAA plans to fill every seat at the controller training academy in Oklahoma City and expand capacity in one of several agency initiatives to ramp up controller hiring and training. This effort comes as controller staffing constraints have come under the spotlight in the wake of a spate of high-profile close calls in the last year. But building up this workforce takes time and can be complex.

The controller academy at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center (MMAC) in Oklahoma City provides basic training for new hires. During the pandemic, it allowed new hires to complete the first course at home and then report to Oklahoma. However, the academy was closed for four months, and training at facilities was paused for eight or more months during the pandemic as the FAA focused on keeping ATC facilities open while dealing with Covid.

When training at the academy resumed in July 2020, after the four-month shutdown, class sizes were cut in half to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines.

The pandemic hit controller hiring and training hard with on-the-job training for developmental controllers significantly dropping at facilities, resulting in delayed certification. In fiscal year 2021, the controller hiring target was dropped from 910 to 500.

Since then, the FAA has been working to restore the training pipeline to full capacity. The agency’s Controller Workforce 2023/2032 Plan had a hiring target of 1,020 in FY 2022 (actual hires were 1,026) and 1,500 in FY 2023. The is set to increase to 1,800 in the current fiscal year.

But the complexities of training during the pandemic, coupled with the ramifications of sequestration budget cuts in past years and a wave of planned retirements, have taken a toll. “This bubble has been building for some time,” one Washington observer noted. “This has all come home to roost now.”

A Slide in Certified Professional Controllers
Noting that there are at least 1,100 fewer certified professional controllers now than at the end of FY 2021, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has stressed that “maximum hiring is necessary to reverse the controller staffing crisis.” Despite a ramp-up in hiring targets, NATCA maintained that the agency had more than 900 fewer trainees than it had five years ago and it netted just 15 additional certified professional controllers (CPCs) compared with the end of FY 2022. This is even though the FAA hired 5,200 new controllers during those five years, which were offset partly by an average of 361 retirements per year.

Further, a Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT OIG) study on FAA controller staffing challenges released in June found understaffing at 20 out of 26 ATC facilities designated as critical. New York TRACON and Miami Tower, for example, were staffed significantly below the FAA’s own threshold for prioritizing a facility for replacement controllers. Jacksonville Center staffing was so low that the FAA had to reduce the flow of traffic.

After a series of runway incursions in early 2023, the FAA established an ad hoc Independent Safety Review Team composed of safety and ATC operations experts including former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair Robert Sumwalt. The team found that the current level of controller understaffing and a historically high and increasing level of overtime are increasing risk and eroding the margin of safety in the national airspace system (NAS).

The safety team said that the 1,800 called for in the FAA’s workforce plan for this year “does not adequately satisfy (NAS) system needs with regard to complexity, growth, and trajectory.”

Further, the report also stated that “classroom size, lab simulation availability, and an overreliance on contract instructors constrain throughput” at the academy.

The agency called growing its controller workforce a “top priority” and has rolled out hiring campaigns and worked with organizations like Women in Aviation International, Dreams Soar, and the National Air and Space Museum to reach more youth from diverse backgrounds.

As it looked to widen its net of prospective trainees, the FAA has said it is committed to the tenets of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). In its Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan 2021-2025, the agency has outlined plans to increase outreach and recruitment to underrepresented communities through intern programs, outreach to colleges and universities, community organizations, and partnerships with other federal agencies.

The FAA has an active workgroup examining DEIA issues and barriers to controller recruitment, training, promotion, and retention. This work group's findings will be reported in future workforce plans.

The FAA also plans to have colleges and universities with an air traffic training program to have graduates skip the academy and go right to facilities to train. In addition, it will institute year-round hiring of experienced controllers from the military and private industry.

The Concerns about Rapid Ramp-up
However, the move to outsource this training comes with concerns, quietly raising questions about standardization and consistency on competencies as well as the ability to establish a uniform culture, and specifically safety culture, with a mix of controller trainees from outside the academy.

While plans call to look at outside means to help with the ramp-up, the FAA also is looking to add ATC instructors to the contractor pool for the academy to keep up with increased training needs.

One of the most important activities at MMAC is the basic training of newly hired controllers who have never been controllers before. “Controllers start their training at the FAA Academy at MMAC for the first four to six months,” said Michelle Coppedge, director of MMAC. “Then they go to a field facility for an additional one to three years of on-the-job training before being certified as a professional controller.”

Training at a facility includes a combination of classroom, simulation, and on-the-job training. New course material is added as new rules, procedures, technology, and trends emerge at the FAA’s air traffic facilities including TRACONs, en route air traffic control centers, and airport towers.

While the classroom space could be adequate, the equipment in the classrooms also must be taken into account to accommodate the additional students. That means a careful balance of building up capacity and having too much in the future must be considered. It also means adequate funding beyond that for the additional controllers. NATCA noted, in the FY 2024 budget bill, that Congress provided $19 million more than the FAA’s budget request for air traffic and technical operations training laboratory enhancements, including an additional en route automation modernization lab and operations laboratory at MMAC to help increase throughput.

Meanwhile, the FAA is keeping a close eye on failure rates at the FAA Academy and among developmental controllers at field facilities who drop out before becoming certified controllers. In FY 2022, 250 newly hired students did not complete academy training, and 107 developmental controllers left before becoming certified controllers.

As hiring ramps up, the FAA expects to have more developmental losses in the years ahead above the average of 91 annually over the past five years. Academy losses are also expected to increase proportionally.

In an email response, the FAA said that in the last three years, students training in the terminal environment who graduated from the Academy resigned before certification at a rate of just 5.07 percent, while en route resignations during on-the-job training were much lower at just 1.38 percent.

In FY 2022, 173 controllers either retired, were removed from service by the agency, or died. The agency forecasts that just 141 will leave the service this year and then slowly rise from that number to 151 in 2028 and up to 156 in 2032.

While the effort to scale up the controller base is widely supported, another consideration must be taken into account during the process: strain on existing controllers.

Billie Vincent, a retired FAA controller training expert, noted that it takes years to train and certify a new controller, and the surge in freshmen controllers is going to create a wave of on-the-job training workload for certified controllers who are already under stress. Any new person unsuited to the demanding skillset of air traffic control will add a workload burden, he asserted. Some trainees can control traffic effectively under the supervision of an instructor but can’t make the leap to control traffic on their own. It takes a personality able to take command and tell pilots what to do, he contended. People who can’t do it eventually drop out but in some cases after years of training. After he led the New York Center in the early 1970s, Vincent led a major reform of FAA controller training in 1975.

The FAA workforce plans say it is evaluating attrition of trainees at the academy and as developmental controllers in field facilities.