FAA Needs to Get Back on Course

FAA Needs to Get Back on Course

Air traffic congestion often raises safety concerns for passengers. In the last year, U.S. airlines flew 753 million passengers both domestically and internationally. As Thanksgiving Day approaches, airline travel will reach its most hectic pace across the country, with Los Angeles International and Chicago O’Hare predicted to be the two busiest domestic airports.  On top of the holiday bustle, there are reports that flight delays could soon reach their worst levels seen in the last twenty years. While air safety should always be the regulatory priority, recent policy changes at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have raised some serious questions and the flying public deserves some answers.

Recall when Ronald Reagan fired over 12,000 striking government air traffic controllers in 1981? Now most of the air traffic controllers that were hired to replace the strikers face mandatory retirement. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General Office report, more than 11,700 air traffic controllers will retire by 2021. While that should be enough to get the FAA geared up to meet this growing challenge, a string of problems – agency mismanagement and overspending, a proposal to sideline the current training program, and turning away potentially prime candidates from selection into the training program – are impeding the pathway to get more air traffic controllers into the airport towers where they are needed.   

Recent news reports provide a quick reminder of how air traffic controller shortages could create adverse consequences on both travelers and airlines, such as when last year’s sequestration made flight delays and cancellations commonplace, or when a recent fire at an airport control tower in Chicago occurred. These examples provide ample evidence of the harms that can occur in the face of a shortage. They also demonstrate how a problem in one airport can produce cascading problems, including delays and cancellations, in airports throughout the nation.

At a time when the FAA needs to ramp up its hiring and training to fill the growing void, its proposal to do away with the current air traffic controller training program belies logic. First, since training can take two or more years to complete, there is an immediate need to keep the process moving along in order to minimize the shortage of trained air traffic controllers. Impending shortages that the FAA should have foreseen would bring stress for existing air traffic controllers and produce flight delays for passengers, which would lead to increased safety risks for passengers and needless costs for airlines. The resulting costs, which could reach billions of dollars, would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher airline prices. 

Second, the FAA has overhauled its commonsense practice of recruiting students from flight schools and tapping into already trained vets leaving the military, who have direct knowledge and experience. Instead, the FAA is now recruiting new off-the-street hires with no previous experience, whose training takes twice as long and at extra cost.

All in all, the timing of the FAA’s decision does not coincide with the needs of the flying public, and it is inconsistent with the agency’s focus on public safety. It amounts to regulatory malpractice and a problem that policymakers will need to take quick action to fix.

With nearly 90,000 flights in the U.S. each day, having more eyes on the sky seems as important as ever. The decision by the FAA to throw out the “baby with the bathwater” seems irresponsible and it could jeopardize public safety. At the very least, their actions would increase flight delays and airline costs, which ultimately would cost consumers more in lost time and higher prices.

To that end, if flight delays and cancelations increased by a mere 1%, the cost (by my estimates) to American consumers well over $1 billion dollars of lost time, but it would also mean increased costs for airlines. In short, passengers lose, and all of the impending airline delays, as well as the potential safety risks associated with increased traffic congestion, could have been avoided.

The FAA needs to revisit its proposal to turn off its established air traffic controller training program, and instead, direct its attention to immediately accelerating its training. That effort would avoid stretching air traffic controllers too thin, which would spare the public a lot of misery and costs from delays, as the busy holiday season approaches and, more importantly, for years to come.

Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.

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