Controller shortages point to an urgent need to hire, but the future job specs must be defined

Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

German air traffic controllers to strike this week

Gatwick controller shortages force runway closure – despite £60,000 “golden hellos”

Air Traffic Controller Staffing

German Union Demands Salary and Benefits Increase

Operator of Gatwick AT Tower tries Bonuses to get Competent Controller

NATCA points to US Shortage

NextGen jobs will require different skills and standards

For several years, the focus of the US ATC policy sphere has been Privatization/Corporatization or whatever. Now that Chairman Shuster has withdrawn AIRR, what will be the next issue. News from Germany and the UK may be harbingers for what Congress and the Executive Branch will next debate.

In Germany, the union, Ver.di, has demanded a 6.5 percent pay rise over 12 months and have asked that pay be linked to the number of years in service. It rejected the latest offer from employers for a raise of 3.2 percent plus a one-time payment this year, and an increase of at least 2 percent next year.

The battle appears to be drawn as Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer has replied a 25-hour work week, 50 days’ annual leave and average pay of about 120,000 euros cannot be described as bad working conditions.  Further, he commented that  strike, coming in the heart of the holiday season, is an effort to leverage the union’s short term power and avoid a long term debate the merits.

Lufthansa has already cancelled half of its flights in anticipation of the strike, and airports ( Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, Cologne and Bremen) have warned their passengers of the likelihood of massive delays.

Across the Channel, the private operator of Gatwick, Air Navigation Solutions Ltd., is a British registered company with its own board of directors and management team.  The subsidiary company of German air navigation service provider DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung awarded a 10-year contract for the future provision of Air Traffic Control and Air Traffic Engineering Services at Gatwick Airport.

It has been reported that LGW’s runway was closed for several hours on the morning of 9 April – due to there being only one controller out of the scheduled three able to work in the control tower due to sickness.

NATS, the Public-Private Partnership which was selected to operate England’s ATC, bid on the operating contract for Gatwick, but lost. At the time of the contract competition, the P3 complained that the German ATC company “low balled” the contract. One third of the incumbent LGW senior controllers stayed with their old employer.

In response to the problem, ANSL provided controllers a ‘golden good day’ of £60,000, payable over three years, to join their GTW team. In addition, the offer included primary wage incentives and matched the engaging work hours, annual depart and pension advantages provided by NATS.


These stories may set the stage for the always contentious ATC situation in the United States. NATCA’s legislative agenda for the last few years has been highlighted by the push to remove the system from the federal government. The union has been on record for years about understaffing of the facilities, but specifically called out the issue at a House Aviation subcommittee in 2016 about the shortage (full statement):


National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi told the House Aviation Subcommittee today that the number 
of fully certified air traffic controllers, already at a 27-year low, fell again in the first three months of this year. Rinaldi said 
the situation has reached a crisis level and outlined several recommendations, including increasing annual hiring totals and passage 
of bipartisan legislation, H.R. 5292, the Air Traffic Controller Hiring Improvement Act of 2016.

Controller staffing levels have fallen nearly 10 percent since 2011, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has missed its 
hiring goals in each of the last seven years. In fact, in fiscal year 2015, the FAA fell 24 percent short of its hiring goal. More 
controllers are eligible to retire today, specifically one-quarter of the workforce, than are in the pipeline to replace them.


“Although NATCA does not believe that the safety of the air traffic control system is at risk, without proper staffing at our facilities, 
efficiency and modernization efforts are being negatively affected, which could lead to further system inefficiencies, delays, and a 
reduction in air traffic services for the flying public,” Rinaldi testified.

At the same hearing, the DOT Inspector General opined that the FAA lacks sufficient data to determine how many controllers the agency needs to effectively manage the National Airspace System, as well as a strategy to ensure there will be enough fully trained controllers in place as the pace of retirements increases. Hindering the agency’s hiring plans was a February 2014 change to a decades-old hiring scheme without a plan in place to manage the new process.

Clearly, these are issues which need to be addressed; however, the discussion appears to be bereft of recognizing that the number and skills of the candidates need to be carefully considered. As the NATCA advertisement, heard frequently inside the Beltway, “we guide you home”, suggests, the current job description involves the person on the scope or at the position is constantly giving directions (heading, altitude, speed, radio frequency and occasionally weather) to the aircraft. NextGen is designed to transfer those communications to computer transmissions.

The controllers of the last 70 years were notable for their capacity to commit to memory all of these critical data. The basic function of the future will be different (see MITRE study) since the pilots will have direct access to essential flight elements. The AT position will be responsible to manage the aircraft. NextGen’s technology is expected to increase the safety of the system while adding to the productivity of these professionals. Thus, it is highly likely that the cadre of AT managers and their skill sets will be different than the past.

Before the shortage is rectified, the job description needs to reflect this transition. Hiring of candidates based on past criteria will certainly create serious disruptions as NextGen’s systems are brought online. The existing research should be expanded and converted to hiring specifications.

Without that work is performed first, awesome aphorist Benjamin Franklin would say, “Haste will make waste”.














Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Be the first to comment on "Controller shortages point to an urgent need to hire, but the future job specs must be defined"

Leave a comment