Aviation Safety:

Opportunities Exist for FAA to Refine the Controller Staffing Process

RCED-97-84: Published: Apr 9, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) efforts to address short- and long-term controller staffing needs, focusing on: (1) the key variables FAA uses to project future controller staffing needs and evaluate their reasonableness; (2) whether FAA has identified a sufficient number of controller candidates to satisfy its short- and long-term staffing needs and evaluate FAA's plans to train new controllers; and (3) impediments that hinder FAA from staffing air traffic control (ATC) facilities at specified levels.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA uses two key variables to project future controller staffing needs; (2) while FAA's estimates of air traffic growth are reasonable, GAO's analysis indicated that FAA could be overstating retirements, which account for most controller attrition, for fiscal years (FY) 1999 through 2002; (3) rather than using actual information on controllers' age and service time to project future retirements, FAA bases its estimates on assumptions about when controllers will be eligible to retire; (4) FAA has identified a sufficient number of controller candidates to meet its short-term staffing needs in FY 1997 and 1998; (5) however, beyond FY 1998, it is uncertain whether current sources can provide the controller candidates FAA will need to meet its hiring goals for FY 1999 through 2002; (6) the majority of available candidates are controllers who were fired in 1981 and who FAA officials believe could be eligible to retire within a few years of reemployment; (7) however, FAA has not conducted any analysis to support this position; (8) to help meet its long-term hiring goals, FAA is expanding its collegiate program to include more schools and has reactivated the cooperative education program; (9) beginning in FY 1998, FAA will require that all new controllers receive some training at its Academy; (10) FAA believes that this will reduce on-the-job training time and costs; (11) this revision, however, could increase the federal costs of initial controller training because FAA will pay a portion of training expenses currently being paid by participants in the collegiate program; (12) FAA officials identified several principal impediments that hinder their ability to staff ATC facilities at specified levels; (13) the first is FAA headquarters' practice of generally not providing funds to relocate controllers until the end of the FY, which causes delayed controller moves and continued staffing imbalances; (14) the second impediment is the limited ability of regional officials to recruit controller candidates locally to fill vacancies at ATC facilities; (15) in addition, FAA regional officials also believe that limited hiring of new controllers in recent years has hindered their ability to fill vacancies; (16) partly due to these impediments, as of April 1996, about 53 percent of ATC facilities were not staffed at levels specified by FAA's staffing standards; (17) there are facilities where staffing differences are not justified; (18) FAA has implemented several initiatives to improve its ability to staff the facilities at specified levels; and (19) it is too early, however, to determine the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has developed a computer program that incorporates actual information on the age, years of service, and retirement eligibility date for controllers currently working at air traffic control facilities, to better predict future controller retirements. The program became fully operational in August 1998. Also, FAA has developed a computer program that allows the agency to monitor attrition in the controller workforce on a monthly basis and, thereby, more accurately assess staffing needs. The program is used to produce monthly controller staffing reports.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to incorporate actual information on the age, years of service, and retirement eligibility date of current controllers into its projections of future controller retirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to FAA officials, in May 1997, they initiated efforts to determine when many of the over 4,000 former PATCO controllers would become eligible to retire, if rehired by the FAA. They found this effort to be very labor-intensive, time consuming, and difficult because personnel data about the controllers' work history was not computerized until after 1981. Therefore, for future planning purposes, FAA officials decided that the most efficient and economical approach would be to calculate retirement eligibility dates for former PATCO controllers when they are rehired. When a former PATCO controller is hired, FAA evaluates demographic data, such as age and actual years of service prior to the 1981 strike, to determine his potential "eligible retirement date".

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to determine, for future planning purposes, when former Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization members currently in the controller candidate pool will become eligible to retire and would need to be replaced, by evaluating demographic data, such as the former controllers' age, years spent actually controlling traffic, and years of potential retirement eligibility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA has not performed a comparison of new controller training costs to determine whether anticipated savings will be realized because very few Collegiate Training Initiative and Mid-America Resource Consortium graduates were trained under the old program in FY 1997 and no graduates have been trained under the new program, which became effective in October 1997. Nevertheless, FAA has established procedures and computer codes to monitor controller training costs. FAA plans to began monitoring controller training costs around the second quarter of FY 1999, when more controllers are expected to go through the program.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to monitor the training costs for Collegiate Training Initiative and Mid-America Resource Consortium graduates hired in FY 1997 and 1998, who will be trained under the old and new programs, to determine whether the anticipated savings will be realized and whether such savings will offset the increased costs of providing centralized training at the FAA Academy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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