North American air traffic control faces staff shortages

North American air traffic control faces staff shortages

July 20, 2023

Air Control Traffic staff shortages in North America are leading to unacceptable delays and disruptions for travellers on both sides of the border, the International Air Transport Association warned on Thursday, 20 July.

IATA Director General, Willie Walsh, said the United States and Canadian air traffic control (ATC) organisations need to ramp up their services by employing additional staff.

“Over the past 12-18 months airlines have responded to the strong post-pandemic travel demand by adding tens of thousands of employees to their workforces. US passenger airline employment is now at its highest level in over two decades,” he said.

“In contrast, ATC staff shortages in North America continue to produce unacceptable delays and disruptions for the traveling public on both sides of the border.”

He said the recent report by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of the Inspector General clearly shows that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has allowed the controller workforce to shrink “to the point where it is challenged to maintain continuity of operations at the country’s most critical air traffic control facilities”.

A total of 77% of these facilities are staffed below the agency’s 85% threshold. The situations in New York Terminal Radar Approach Control and Miami Tower are extreme at 54% and 66%, respectively.

“Earlier this year, airlines reduced their schedules by up to 10% at New York area airports at the request of the FAA which had acknowledged that it could not accommodate the current level of operations there with the existing controller workforce,” Walsh said.

“Poor ATC performance comes on top of the FAA and DOT requiring airlines to invest over $630 million to upgrade or replace fully certified onboard avionics equipment on thousands of aircraft to mitigate the risks of 5G rollout near airports,” he said.

This is unique to the US as the 5G rollout in other parts of the world has not required this of airlines.

“This double whammy of poor planning is exceptionally disappointing. While the administration has well-developed plans for new passenger rights regulations to penalise airlines for delays, even if the root causes are beyond the industry’s control, a fix for controller shortages that would actually reduce delays is far too long in coming,” Walsh said.

“As a first step, it is long past time for the appointment of a permanent FAA Administrator equipped to show strong leadership in devising a plan to rapidly rebuild the controller workforce.”

Recent media reports also highlight how NAV Canada, the Canadian air navigation services provider (ANSP), is also letting down airlines and the travelling public, with hundreds of flights cancelled owing to controller shortages.

This comes as the Canadian government is revising passenger rights legislation, placing the burden of care and compensation solely on airlines, irrespective of the cause of delays.

“We agree with the government that shared accountability is needed across the entire value chain, which cannot be achieved by singling out airlines. Instead of focusing on bureaucratic and punitive legislation, the government needs to urgently address the shortfalls in those sections of the aviation ecosystem it controls. Asking airlines to negotiate performance agreements with monopoly service providers reflects a lack of understanding of the industry and will not improve the overall travel experience,” said Walsh.

He said the bottom line was that Ottawa and Washington DC need to resolve the issues under their direct control.

“Appointing a permanent FAA Administrator would be a first and major step in urgently addressing the US aviation/air traffic control infrastructure constraints, which are hindering airlines from delivering the service travellers expect,” Walsh said.

He added that refraining from doubling down on “costly and poorly thought-out” air travel consumer rights regulations in both countries, would free up resources across the value chain.

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