Aviation Safety:

Serious Problems Concerning the Air Traffic Control Work Force

RCED-86-121: Published: Mar 6, 1986. Publicly Released: Mar 6, 1986.

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GAO reported on its study of the air traffic control (ATC) work force. GAO: (1) surveyed air traffic controllers, supervisors, and facility managers about the prevalence of certain problems; and (2) studied Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data on staffing, overtime, and air traffic activity.

GAO found that: (1) the ATC system is operating with fewer controllers overall, and far fewer fully qualified controllers (FPL), than before the August 1981 controllers' strike; (2) while FAA has established a 75-percent FPL staffing goal for all ATC facilities, only 66 percent of the total controllers are FPL; (3) FAA groups FPL and less-qualified controllers together when it reports on the size of the work force and its progress toward meeting staffing goals; (4) training attrition has increased 9 percent since the strike; and (5) many more controllers may retire in the next 2 years than FAA expects because of concern over proposed changes in the federal retirement system. GAO also found that: (1) air traffic has reached record levels and is expected to continue to grow; (2) controller work loads will continue to be a source of concern because major labor-saving innovations in the ATC system will not be in place for some time; (3) many controllers believe that they are overworked because of a shortage of FPL, inadequate traffic flow control procedures, airline schedules, and ATC sector configuration changes; (4) while FAA reported that systemwide overtime use decreased, overtime use at major-route ATC centers actually increased; and (5) FAA relies very heavily on overtime to compensate for reduced staffing requirements. GAO believes that, despite repeated FAA assurances to the contrary, the ATC system does not provide the same level of safety as it did before the strike.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA evaluated its facility advisory boards and human relations committees to identify which ones have had good results and the reasons why.

    Recommendation: FAA should include controllers and supervisors in the process of deciding how to improve management concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA is using GAO-provided data to identify facilities where the flow control program was criticized by controllers and supervisors. Results of an ongoing FAA evaluation of the central flow control operation are expected. The flow control program evaluation has been completed and certain restrictions have been implemented.

    Recommendation: FAA should evaluate the effectiveness of its flow control program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA is reviewing GAO-provided data to identify facilities where controllers and supervisors identified the lack of sectors as a problem and states that sectorization programs will be reviewed accordingly. FAA instituted a new program to identify maximum sector capacity levels.

    Recommendation: FAA should take into account the concerns of its controllers, supervisors, and facility managers, and work with controllers and their supervisors to change sector configurations where sectors are handling too much traffic or are too complex. FAA should also evaluate the effectiveness of its flow control program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA is reminding all facility managers to adhere to FAA policy regarding time-on-position limits and is using GAO-provided data to identify problem facilities. GAO work on staffing standards indicate that less time is being spent on position without a break. An upcoming GAO survey will quantify.

    Recommendation: FAA should take into account the concerns of its controllers, supervisors, and facility managers, and reduce the total amount of time controllers are spending at radar control positions during a shift and the amount of time they are working without some sort of break during normal busy periods.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA is restricting traffic through improvements to its Traffic Management System, which is consistent with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: FAA should impose restrictions on air traffic until both the number of FPL and overtime requirements meet its goals. Problems relating to both the number of FPL and overtime are most acute at the air route traffic control centers and FAA must recognize this in deciding what restrictions to impose.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA agreed to redefine the controller workforce and report staffing progress in the manner recommended.

    Recommendation: To more clearly report its progress in meeting its goals, FAA should report its staffing progress in terms of the ratio of fully qualified controllers to the controller work force, exclusive of air traffic assistants, and report overtime use for controllers actually working overtime and the variations in total usage among centers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

 

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