Air Traffic Control:

FAA Needs to Better Prepare for Impending Wave of Controller Attrition

GAO-02-591: Published: Jun 14, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2002.

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Thousands of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controllers will soon be eligible to retire because of extensive hiring in the 1980's to replace striking air traffic controllers. Although the exact number and timing of the controllers' departures has not been determined, attrition scenarios developed by both FAA and GAO indicate that the total attrition will grow substantially in both the short and long term. As a result, FAA will likely need to hire thousands of air traffic controllers in the next decade to met increasing traffic demands and to address the anticipated attrition of experienced controllers, predominately because of retirement. FAA has yet to developed a comprehensive human capital workforce strategy to address its impending controller needs. Rather, FAA's strategy for replacing controllers is generally to hire new controllers only when current, experienced controllers leave. This does not take into account the potential increases in future hiring and the time necessary to train replacements. In addition, there is uncertainty about the ability of FAA's new aptitude test to identify the best controller candidates. Further, FAA has not addressed the resources that may be needed at its training academy. Finally, exemptions to the age-56 separation rules raise safety and equity issues.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2002, GAO issued a report (GAO-02-591) that found a pending wave of air traffic controller retirements at FAA. The report also found that FAA was not prepared to train new air traffic controller candidates in the most effective manner due to resource and equipment shortcomings at its training academy in Oklahoma City. Therefore, the report recommended that FAA address the resource and equipment needs at its training academy to help ensure that FAA is in a position to successfully train a growing number of controller candidates. In December 2004, FAA issued a 10-year air traffic controller workforce plan. In this plan, FAA stated that, as of November 2004, it had installed 4 new tower simulators at the academy. It estimates that these simulators will double the Academy's previous training capacity. In addition, the plan indicated that by March 2005 FAA would complete installation of a new simulation lab for en route controllers. According to FAA, this will provide it with state of the art training technology, enhance student performance, and reduce the total amount of time new controllers need to achieve certification. Further the plan indicated that FAA would increase the number of both in-house and contract instructors at the academy to address the additional number of candidates in need of training. Finally, the plan indicated that FAA was instituting several new strategies to revise the way FAA provides training to air traffic controller candidates. These strategies include: (1) establishing a national on-the-job training tracking system, (2) converting the "classroom" portion of training to web-based delivery, (3) redesigning the academy en-route airspace training, and (4) several other strategies. By implementing these strategies, FAA is revamping how its academy training works and making it more efficient, directly in response to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help meet the challenges presented by hiring thousands of new controller candidates, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop a comprehensive workforce plan that includes strategies for addressing the resource and equipment needs at the training academy to help ensure that FAA is in a position to successfully train a growing number of controller candidates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2002, GAO issued a report (GAO-02-591) that found a pending wave of air traffic controller retirements at FAA. The report also found that in order to most efficiently screen new air traffic controller applicants, FAA would need to continuously evaluate its screening tool, known as the AT-SAT. The report recommended that FAA evaluate AT-SAT to determine whether or not the test was identifying the most successful candidates over time. In December 2004, FAA issued a 10-year workforce plan for its air traffic controller workforce, which included responses to GAO's recommendations. In the plan, FAA states that it plans to carry out this recommendation by evaluating the effectiveness of AT-SAT in identifying successful controller candidates over the long-term. In addition, the workforce plan indicates that FAA has already begun to assess to whether AT-SAT can aide FAA in determining where to place newly hired controllers. For example, FAA is studying whether the test can be used to identify whether individuals should be placed in terminal or en route facilities or whether a new controller should be placed at a more or less complex facility.

    Recommendation: To help meet the challenges presented by hiring thousands of new controller candidates, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop a comprehensive workforce plan that includes strategies for evaluating the newly developed screening test to determine whether it is identifying the most successful candidates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2002, GAO issued a report (GAO-02-591) that found a pending wave of air traffic controller retirements at FAA. The report also found that FAA was unprepared to deal with this wave of retirements and recommended that FAA identify the number and timing of hires necessary to ensure that facilities have an adequate number of certified controllers available to perform needed duties as well as determine and plan for the expected attrition levels at each facility. In December 2004, FAA issued a 10-year workforce plan for its air traffic controller workforce, which included responses to GAO's recommendations. In the plan, FAA states that it has established a facility-by-facility retirement loss model and will use the model's data to create annual hiring targets for each facility. Further, the plan states that FAA will refine the model regularly and place more emphasis on developing accurate facility level data, which will be used to establish priorities for assigning controllers to the facilities in most need of additional staff. If carried out, this plan should help FAA avoid long-term staffing shortages at particular air traffic facilities. These actions can be directly attributed to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help meet the challenges presented by hiring thousands of new controller candidates, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop a comprehensive workforce plan that includes strategies for identifying the number and timing of hiring necessary to ensure that facilities have adequate numbers of certified controllers available to perform needed duties. As part of this effort, FAA should determine and plan for the expected attrition levels and timing at each facility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its 60-day letter, FAA indicated that it would review existing research on the issues of controller age and job performance. However, it made no indication that it would address the specifics of GAO's recommendation, which called for a study of the safety and equity issues associated with exempting potentially large numbers of controllers from the mandatory age-56 separation requirement.

    Recommendation: To help meet the challenges presented by hiring thousands of new controller candidates, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FAA to develop a comprehensive workforce plan that includes strategies for assessing the potential safety and equity issues associated with exempting potentially large numbers of controllers from the mandatory age-56 separation requirement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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