Buckle Up, Flight Delays Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

J.P. Tristani Aviation Consultant
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The Federal Aviation Administration — the FAA — is flying into a gathering storm. At a time when the U.S. is experiencing the highest rate of flight delays in more than 20 years, the FAA proposes a new training program for air traffic controllers that will result in a shortage of controllers, higher costs for taxpayers, more delays for passengers, and worse, risks to their safety.

In the early 1980s, the FAA hired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers to replace those fired by President Reagan during the crippling Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981. Those professionals will soon reach the mandatory retirement age of 56.

Despite being aware of the effects of these retirements for over a decade, the FAA has failed to create effective programs to select and train enough replacements to meet the coming shortage. FAA inaction and lack of planning has resulted in the need for a huge surge of new air controllers over the next two years, all of whom must be quickly trained to make sure that the nation’s airways continue to be safely monitored.

Rather than addressing the vital need to have more well-trained air controllers as soon as possible, the FAA is lobbying for funds to replace the current training program — Air Traffic Controller Optimum Training Solution (ATCOTS) — in order to implement a new training program, claiming that it will save the day. But the problem is not the existing training program.

Instead of introducing a new training program, with the usual delays that will increase the looming shortfall of air traffic controllers, the FAA should improve and continue ATCOTS and change its candidate selection program. Sticking with a training program that works and ensuring qualified candidates are selected are the two most important actions to guarantee that the best controllers graduate from the FAA training system.

The Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOTIG) recognizes these problems, and has criticized the FAA for weakness in program and contract management, and for failing to address recommendations it gave in 2010. The 2013 DOTIG report showed that the FAA had not assessed the ATCOTS program with regard to long term needs, and that the FAA “still does not hold oversight staff accountable for conducting required semiannual evaluations” of the training program. In addition, the FAA’s failure to adopt next generation technologies has already increased training backlogs.

With so many controllers facing mandatory retirement, an already strained hiring process, and the highest number of flight delays in recent history, now is not the time for the FAA to mask internal problems with a new training program. That approach might make the FAA look better, but it will burden travelers and taxpayers. Instead, the FAA should focus on fixing parts of the training system that are broken, particularly those that are the result of the agency’s own inefficiencies and inadequate administrative practices.

The bottom line is that a new training program will inevitably increase the shortfall of air traffic controllers. The FAA should improve and continue using ATCOTS to quickly bring online the number of qualified controllers needed to monitor U.S. airspace and to ensure airline passenger safety. Changing course and introducing a speculative new training system will result in more training delays and cost at a time when FAA should be preparing for the next generation of air traffic controller candidates that must enter the training system right now.

FAA’s call for a new training program is a transparent attempt to divert attention from flight delays, lack of planning, and willingness to sacrifice passenger safety, just to improve its tarnished image. If Ronald Reagan were president today, in this emergency he would fire FAA bureaucrats instead of air controllers.

In an aviation career spanning 43 years, JP Tristani was a test pilot, Marine fighter and helicopter pilot, and a worldwide commercial airline captain for 33 years. He appears frequently on TV as a commentator on aviation issues.