Acting Administrator's Letter to Congress on the Controller Workforce Plan

Members of Congress: 

In accordance with the Federal Aviation Administration’s obligation to submit an annual update to the Controller Workforce Plan, please find our latest analysis and projections for building and maintaining the staffing levels necessary to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the National Airspace System[1]. The report reflects changes in air traffic forecasts, controller retirements, and other factors. Given current budget debates in Congress, the report reflects the urgent need for consistent funding for the workforce that maintains the most complex airspace in the world.

Like much of the rest of the private and public sectors, the FAA is working to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented global public health emergency forced the agency to shut down its training academy for four months in 2020 and to pause training for eight months at all facilities to reduce exposure to the virus and keep the airspace open.

The controller workforce has stepped up and delivered safe and consistent flight operations even as demand for air travel quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) and a recent report from the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) demonstrate a range of factors, notably airline deficiencies, have caused more delays and cancellations than controller staffing deficits. We owe air traffic controllers a debt of gratitude for their performance under these challenging conditions.

In the years since, the Air Traffic Organization has met recruitment goals in each year and is making progress toward eliminating the gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, we were at 99 percent of our hiring goal, and we are on track to meet our goal of hiring 1,500 controllers this year. In fact, the application window opens today to hire another 1,800 controllers in 2024. The agency has hired additional instructors at our academy in Oklahoma City and stepped-up on-the-job training at each of our air traffic facilities nationwide. Approximately 3,000 controllers are in various stages of training, and many are able to work some of the positions in the facilities where they are placed.

Despite these efforts, the spending cuts recently passed by the House of Representatives would wreak havoc on summer air travel. The agency would be forced to halt controller training and new hiring. Thousands of FAA employees would be furloughed from their safety duties, and the replacement of the computer backbone that transfers data between air traffic facilities would be unacceptably delayed. Additionally, these cuts would hobble much-needed air traffic modernization work and stop the transfer to a new NOTAM system.

We are encouraged that Americans are flying again and that demand continues to grow. The FAA and industry recognize that we must work together to prepare for the demand of a busy summer. We recognize the importance of maintaining adequate staffing, even though OPSNET data show that about 5 percent of delay minutes can be attributed to FAA staff shortages. 

We have also taken steps ahead of the summer travel season to increase efficiency, including: optimizing airspace around commercial rocket launch sites, activating nearly 170 high-altitude routes that are more direct and faster, and increasing the operational buffer in the New York City airspace while encouraging airlines to fly larger planes into slot-constrained airports. This push is already producing results, and airlines report this will actually mean a 13 percent increase in the number of available seats across the system. 

We urge Congress to support the FAA’s efforts to maintain the high standards for safety and efficiency that taxpayers expect and deserve and to pass a budget that does not make summer travel worse.

A similar response is being sent to the Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations; the Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Appropriations; the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 

Billy Nolen
Acting Administrator 

[1] "The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023 (Public Law [Pub. L.] 117-328) requires the FAA to submit an annual update to the Controller Workforce Plan pursuant to Section 221 of Pub. L. 108-176 (amended by Pub. L. 117-103)."

Last updated: Friday, May 5, 2023