Air Traffic Controller Shortage Could Impact the Travel Industry for Years

A dire situation will probably get worse before it improves

Female Air Traffic Controller with Headset Talk on a Call in Airport Tower. Office Room is Full of Desktop Computer Displays with Navigation Screens, Airplane Flight Radar Data for the Team
”It will take five to seven years [of hiring] to break even if all goes well.”
Getty Images/iStockphoto

After one of the busiest travel summers ever, it seems that there’s some sweet relief in terms of crowds and flight prices going into fall. But as the holiday season looms, persistent personnel shortages are making airline industry executives nervous, especially when it comes to air traffic controllers. And many say that it could cause issues not only in 2024, but for the next five years. 

Earlier this year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN that there’s a 3,000-person controller shortage. Air traffic controllers are responsible for issuing takeoff and landing instructions to pilots, monitoring and managing planes while they’re in the air, and administering all ground traffic. So yeah, a shortage of these highly-trained personnel is not a good thing. 

The issue is that the Federal Aviation Administration has a single certification academy. According to Nick Calio, the Airlines for America chief, “It will take five to seven years [of hiring] to break even if all goes well.” Even if the FAA hired the maximum number of controllers to get certified through the academy, Calio said it’s “not going to be enough” for a swift recovery — hence the idea that it might take five more years to get staffing levels back to normal. 

What an Air Traffic Controller Shortage Could Mean for You
Several carriers are planning schedule cuts to multiple major airports this summer

What can be done to make the situation better? Calio suggested letting universities that have air traffic controller programs provide the certification classes, which other countries do successfully. He also said U.S. airlines should press the FAA to reduce flight levels at New York metro airports again next summer, as it’s the area of the country that’s the most understaffed. The FAA asked airlines to do this for Newark, JFK and Laguardia this year.

Airline executives have jumped in with their opinions as well. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said the FAA should provide more advanced warning to airlines so they can shift their flight plans accordingly. Robert Ison, CEO of American Airlines, had a blunter, bleaker outlook. “If you were pleased with this summer in terms of air transportation, it’s going to get a lot tougher, and if you weren’t pleased, it’s going to be a lot worse as we look forward,” he told CNN.

The situation seems pretty dire, as airports are already packed and there are flight disruptions aplenty during busy travel seasons. It really seems like throwing it to the universities could help ease the burden of getting more air traffic controllers certified in the coming years.


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