Back to Squawk list
  • 26

The Air Traffic Controller Crisis is Real in America

The aviation industry is enormously complex and requires the skilled labor of thousands of professionals each day to function smoothly. A major sector, though, is facing a pile-up of potentially catastrophic challenges that could threaten the stability of the industry into the future. ( More...

Sort type: [Top] [Newest]

Scott Heng 20
They blew their chance in hiring many controllers last decade, letting the budget and long hiring processes lose out on skilled recruits. I passed the FAA test about 15yrs ago only to be dropped off the hiring train thanks to budget cuts. My coworker bailed ATC due to slow training. We’re now both happily flight dispatching at a major airline. Also something that might help is maybe think about raising maximum hiring age to somewhere between 30 and 35…
alex hidveghy 3
You reap what you sow? Some agencies are their own worse enemies. I have a similar story…’s called flogging a dead horse.
Jim Allen 2
Are you happier as a dispatcher or you think ATC with all the issues they face now would’ve been a better career choice?
It looks like an entry level position in Denver is starting at about $34K, less $17 an hour. You have to do training, they want you to have a degree or experience. I don't believe you could rent the cheapest apartment in Denver and buy gas to get to work for that. You can work at the gas station where I live and make more and you barely need to work, be sober, etc. Simple problem for everyone but our government to understand.
When did the salary become so low? I thought FAA ATC made $100K at least. Perhaps I just thought they did.
Joe Daskalakis 1
Denver area pay starts at $59K. Pay progresses with position certifications to $89K, $103K and finally $118K at BJC and APA, which are the lowest paid facilities in the metro.
Larry Kizer 11
Although staffing is a critical problem, this author seems to thrive on sensationalism and lack of knowledge of the air traffic control system. He refers only to "tower" controllers and no mention of the thousands of controllers who work in the approach and center facilities which are RADAR only. He offers no evidence to sustain his claims of controller conduct. Not my best read. I am a retiree with 32 years of ATC service.
Mike Dav 7
Agree. This was a poorly written and researched article. No data, no interviews, no analysis, just hyperbole and hearsay.
Billy Koskie 5
FAA needs to be recruiting from high schools and work with local trade schools to find and train controllers early. College won't be as important as aptitude, intelligence and decision-making ability. If you run them through a specifically designed 2-year trade school program similar to Air Force or Navy training, then 2 years training OTJ at small, controlled airspace airports side-by-side with mentors, you'd find controllers young. And dump the checkbox mentality. When it comes to aviation, the focus has to be getting the best.
Keith Brown 19
I was a controller at one of the busiest facilities in the country for 23 years. I watched staffing continue to dwindle during most of that period. The problem is both the FAA and the union. FAA management, for the most part, is incompetent, and really doesn't care about actual physical tolls on overworked controllers nor the effects of a toxic work environment. I was present at a meeting with the COO at the time about a facility manager and he put up his hands and said something to the effect of "We can't fire him. What do you want me to do?". This manager used his authority to fire new hires on the last day of their one year probationary period because, he could. On the other hand, the union has always been in favor of overtime because a majority of the members want the extra income so they're not inclined to push too hard for more staffing, even though they speak about it publicly.

As soon as I hit 50 and was eligible to retire, I bailed and never looked back. I saw the writing on the wall. I've also told family and friends for years, there will be a major accident, most likely on the ground at a busy airport.

Politics has ruined EVERYTHING in this country, including ATC and the NAS. Keep this in mind before you vote for vegetables that TELL you they're going to only make diversity hires, disregarding their actual qualifications.
Hire a 'check the box' is ridiculous! Would you want a doctor performing open heart surgery on you, only because he/she 'checked the box' . NO. I've heard stories from within...pilots freezing during landing, near crashes into the ocean (United-Hawaii) because the pilots/copilots were in the 'check the box' category. Only the best should be hired--regardless of race/gender. PERIOD.
Peter Rice 3
Sorry you didn't have the "privilege" of working with me and 4 other re-hires at Bay TRACON in '95. All of us were certified within 6 months, so please don't paint with so wide a brush. After 3 years there, I went to SoCal and worked the LA finals for 10 more years. I've been a contract instructor there for the last 15 years and would say that only in the last 3 or 4 years has my working speed declined.
avionik99 6
And yet I have never seen this job posted on any job bank. Like etc
Horrible to read that these workers are infighting and drinking so much. We need to do a better job taking care of these skilled workers. Advertise the job more, set up new training facilities, and give pay and benefits increases. Make it a job people would like, we need far more applicants so we can afford to take in the top 10% of applicants.
ko25701 13
All federal government jobs are on the usajobs website. Why would they use a commercial website when they can waste taxpayers money on their own website?
steve dinnen 7
It would have been helpful if this opinion piece cited even a shred of evidence to support the drinking claim. This is a serious charge. Yet, there is nothing here behind conjecture. The New York Times took a swing at this topic on Dec. 2 (and it looks as if the author of this piece took inspiration from it).
msetera 2
How's that diversity/inclusion hiring strategy working out?
Why are there not FAA-approved courses at the college level where ATC is being taught? There's nothing like on-the-job training, but if some aviation colleges can teach how to be good controllers, and use simulators for initial training I am sure that staffing can get back to acceptable levels. Even the FAA has admitted that 99% of towers are understaffed. Seems like most of the problems are with tower controllers, and not nearly as much with the approach and departure control centers.
Robert Fleury 1
The idea seems attractive and has already been tried in Canada in some specialized schools but has not yielded the expected results for the simple reason that these schools did not have the means to support the human, technical and financial infrastructures required to simulate an air traffic control unit to bring candidates to an interesting enough level of proficiency for the “final” employer. When we refer to “Flight simulation”, we generally refer to ONE simulator, ONE or 2 pilots depending on the type of aircraft and ONE instructor (who usually plays the role of ATC for radio exchanges). The reproduction of an air traffic control unit requires a large number of connected consoles with an equally large number of trainees to allow the simulation of a significant traffic flow with all the coordination/interaction that this implies. In the background, you need a proportional number of actors/pilots (feeders) to enter the flight controls data in the computers, the controllers' instructions, and give the radio feed-back. The selection and training of these feeders is not straightforward in the sense that they must already be skilled and fast enough to understand and correctly enter the data corresponding to the controllers' instructions that often arrive at them in bursting sequences. During high-density exercises, a feeder can hardly represent more than one aircraft. This means that an exercise with 20 aircraft in flight simultaneously will occupy more or less 20 feeders. In addition, they must be familiar with the phraseology of air traffic control and aviation in general and, last but not least, familiar with the characteristics of the type of aircraft they simulate so as not to accept clearances/instructions outside the actual flight capabilities of the aircraft in question. So, it cannot be an ad hoc workforce. It must be a group of permanent employees who will receive training and periodic refresher classes. Maybe this is an area where AI could bring significant improvements. It should also be remembered that if you simulate a unit with radar consoles, communication lines, etc., these devices will require the same level of maintenance as those in the real environment, otherwise your simulator will soon or later come to a halt. Finally (as I have been told once as an instructor at the national school), training in ATC as one primarily purpose: skim from the start candidates who do not have the potential to later occupy a position in a large unit, minimize long-term investments and free up places for more promising candidates.
Interesting and probably accurate assessment. But, the Government subsidizes everything else, so why not include training for ATC controllers? Stop sending so many of our taxpayer dollars to prop up foreign interests and start putting some of those dollars to better use at home. I don't think it would be out of the realm of reality to build several ATC training centers [including realistic control towers] Some of those things could actually be set up at real airports and possibly have video feeds tied into the training that shows real-time action. My opinion only.
I Dunno 1
Bottom Line: Out of 100 persons that initially apply to the U.S. Civil Service Comm. to become an FAA Air Traffic Controller, only 6.7 % ever reach full Journeyman level to operate by yourself under general supervision. Normally, that can be between 3 1/2 to 5+ years depending upon the level of the facility that you are assigned to. Until that point, one must be under direct supervision and training. Most tend to wash-out or just quit. It is an antiquated system and far-underemployed. Nothing has really improved after the 1981 PATCO strike. All they did back then to make it "better" was to just jack up the salary to shut up the controllers from complaining.
I did the math when I was an FAA pre-employment interviewer in the N.E. Florida region.
Keith Brown 1
Empirically, I would say your data is correct. It was my experience. However...I would disagree with your assumption the system is flawed. It worked. It weeded out the candidates that couldn't hack it for whatever reason, in fact it's become easier now (in general) to be certified and I'm sorry, but that's not a good thing. The problem is in the PIPELINE. The Academy has been shut down numerous times over the years due to budgetary constraints, the Plandemic, etc... The CTI schools were just making a buck and passing on students that couldn't be successful. They need to go back to hiring "off the street" to candidates that can pass the OPM knowledge test and make it through the Academy pass/fail. I had to quit my job, pack up my household goods and put them in storage in California to drive to OKC on 3 weeks notice with no guarantees whatsoever. I studied my a** off with other classmates during 4 months of hell on earth, only to be sent to a facility not of my choosing. Bring all that back. If you really, really want it, and you have the talent, you'll succeed. Otherwise, hit the bricks and find something else to do.
Keith Brown -3
BTW, the recently passed defense budget was $883.7 Billion (with a B). And how many billions have been spent on Ukraine (and for WHAT?). How many controllers could you hire for a small fraction of that? The government doesn't care about your right to travel, or your safety in doing so (broad brush, there are some very good people in the FAA, NTSB, NASA, etc... but they don't have the power).
It's not a matter of how many controllers could be hired, but how many TRAINED AND QUALIFIED controllers could be integrated into the workflow.
Nooge 0
BTW, the recently passed defense budget was $883.7 Billion (with a B). And how many billions have been spent on Ukraine

5% of that $883.7 Billion (with a B)...and for WHAT to stop the ruthless aggression sovereign nation on the border of NATO

For what ? one thing our NATO allies are stepping up and meeting obligations

For what ? Russia has lost a staggering 87 percent of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine ...
Keith Brown -2
Deep sigh. Okay, I'll be dragged into a public debate on the subject. The regions in question are ethnically Russian, they speak Russian, they've always wanted to return to Russia. The conflict has been going on for almost a decade, unbeknownst to most Westerners. Until after WWII there was never "Ukraine", it was all part of Russia. Arbitrary lines drawn on a map by International powers much like Pakistan v. India, and why not mention it, Gaza v. Israel. The Ukrainians have been bombing those regions themselves. If you watch mainstream media, it's no wonder you have no idea what's going on. There have even been referendums where the citizens of Eastern Ukraine have petitioned to separate. It's basically a civil war and Russia stepped in. Let's not forget that the current Ukraine government was established by a coup organized by the USA. What business do we have there? Huh? Think about it. WE (as NATO) have violated agreement after agreement and policy after policy not to encroach on Russia, and I believe the count is now somewhere around 18. WE are the a-holes. Putin has consistently maintained he has no designs on the rest of Ukraine, yet we continue to provoke by threatening to make Ukraine a NATO member. If you want your children (or grandchildren) to die in a war with Russia, well then have at it. Ask yourself, why have there been absolutely NO peace negotiations involving the USA? Instead we just pony up billions and billions of dollars worth of weapons that get sold on the black market and make Ukrainian politicians wealthy. You live in a fantasy world. I'll bet the sky there is purple...
Randy Marco 1
There is NO debate.

YOU are an ignorant MAGA idiot, that admires Dictators.  You don't trust "mainstream media" but trust $787 milion defamation paying (so far), lying Faux News and you obviously believe "alternative facts" because they fit your deluded views.

Undoubtedly you believe Ronnie brought down the Soviet Union and supported the Cold War and the Trillions spent when the Soviet Union was imploding all by itself. And NO Ronnie did NOT bring down the Soviet Union, that's a Right-wing fantasy. The Soviet system collapsed all by itself.  Ukraine is a huge revenue source and would help Russia become an actual major power again. The world needs to keep Russia contained now if Europe is to remain Free.

FACT: Putin wants ALL of Ukraine, tried to capture the Capital NOT just the Eastern Donbas.

FACT: Putin wants Russia to return to it's "former glory" of the USSR which means ALL of Poland and more. Dictators will NEVER stop unless the World stops them.
bentwing60 1
back again eh, gaslight king! I have yet to figure out who you really troll for but your 'facts' are always specious, the intellect is suspect and every time you emerge from the see eye aaa basement it exposes that you have been bowling from the wrong end of the lane since forever here.

I anxiously await your next 'ad hominem' attack?
Valerie Scott 0
Thank you Ronald Regan
Robert Fleury -2
Just recall the 12,000 controllers Reagan fired some years ago...
Keith Brown 3
I had the "privilege" of working with about a dozen "rehires" that Clinton authorized back in the mid-90s. All of these guys were in their 60s or early 70s even back then, while mandatory retirement age is 56. I can only remember two that managed to certify, and they were still terrible. The rest were hopeless. ATC is a young man's game. I'm 60 now and there's no freakin' way I could do that job any more. So, that ship has sailed. You do realize they were fired in 1981 and it's now 2023?? SMH...
Robert Fleury 2
That was just a joke... I'm well aware of the time span, I was TCU in YUL at the time and now 75, I don't think they'd like to see me around anymore! lol I heard that the FAA would not hire older than age 31 because they want candidates to have at least a 25-year career (retirement at 56) but that's not the whole truth. Statistics in the old days suggested that candidates beyond 26 had very little chances of successfully completing an ATC training program and become operational at high density units.
Keith Brown 1
Well, I actually hired on at 26 after 10 years military service, C-130 aircrew and tower controller. We had former airline pilots, accountants, even a long haul truck driver that hired on at later ages under 31. As long as I kept my skills sharp I was fine. Even when I was "off the boards" for an airspace project, I would still go down to the floor and get my 16 hours in a month to keep currency. But age is definitely a factor the longer one goes on, so I never understood the mentality of someone that reached 56 and was seeking a waiver to work for another year. Most likely they didn't handle their finances well. I saw a lot of that too. But anyway, the FAA has NEVER really addressed the issue and along with the DOT (their boss) and Congress, continue to ignore it. I haven't a clue what they're thinking, they travel more by air than the average person.
Roger Curtiss 1
The youngest of Whom would now be in their late 60s now.
Robert Fleury 0
Another way to do this is to take ATC operations out of the hands of the government. i.e., go private. The gov remains the watchdog for quality and compliance but recruiting, training, staffing, equipment selection and implementation, etc. goes private. In the 90, the Chrétien's administration (1993-2003) in CDA wanted to reduce the gov deficit to zero and they froze all civil servants’ salaries/increments fro more than 7 years despite collective bargaining agreements. Controllers’ salaries plummeted from a 7th rank to somewhere around 17th worldwide. If you had the years behind you, you could consider retiring as early as 45 (with some penalties of course) but given the situation, a lot of controllers were considering their options. That's when the gov realized that the 45+ age group represented 40% of its highly qualified workforce and their massive retirement would create havoc in the system. Nav Canada, an NPO, was created in 1996 and controllers were offered to move freely to the new business. For those who didn’t want to make the move, the gov promised to do everything possible to find them another job in the public sector within a year. Some were offered to stay as experts to supervise the operations of the new company. The point is: Nav-Can was not subject to the salary restrictions of the public service and as a controller's pension is based on his 6 best salary years, Nav-Can was not very reluctant to negotiate attractive conditions to obtain 6 more years of its most experienced employees... Whether they have learned from that and put the school in high gear, I don’t know, I didn’t stay around. At age 50 minus 1 minute, I left and took my pension with me.


Don't have an account? Register now (free) for customized features, flight alerts, and more!
Did you know that FlightAware flight tracking is supported by advertising?
You can help us keep FlightAware free by allowing ads from We work hard to keep our advertising relevant and unobtrusive to create a great experience. It's quick and easy to whitelist ads on FlightAware or please consider our premium accounts.