Air Traffic Control Is Short About 3,000 Staffers As Summer Approaches — What to Know

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg detailed the current state of air traffic control in a recent interview.

<p>SAUL LOEB/Getty Images</p>

SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

The summer travel season is just weeks away, but the Federal Aviation Administration is staring down at a staff shortage of about 3,000 air traffic control employees.

The significant shortage, which Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg detailed to CNN, puts the current ATC workforce at about 11,500 controllers. But Buttigieg said “the optimal number is closer to about 14,500.”

“We have thousands of controllers in training right now but also a number who are eligible to retire,” Buttigieg said.

The FAA started accepting applications for Air Traffic Control Trainees on Friday, and will continue accepting them through Monday. The agency is hoping to hire 1,500 new entry-level air traffic controllers this year, CNN reported, adding to the 1,026 controllers it hired last year.

The push to hire more staff comes after the FAA allowed airlines to cut back on service from New York and Washington D.C.-area airports ahead of the very busy summer season due to the shortage. Carriers like United Airlines and American Airlines chose to temporarily cut back on flights from the affected airports.

Last week, the FAA also approved more than 100 new and more efficient flight routes along the East Coast in an effort to ease congestion, offering more direct (and shorter) options mostly flown above 18,000 feet in altitude. The new routes were more than seven years in the making.

But Buttigieg told CNN the staffing shortages are not to blame for most cancellations and delays. And FAA administrator Billy Nolen has said about 5 percent of delay minutes can be attributed to the staff shortages.

“Controller availability is not the cause of most [cancellations] and delays that we see,” Buttigieg said. “The (staffing) gaps that we’ve seen have built up over years. This is nothing that we can’t prepare for going into this summer. But this is part of why we’re working so hard to train new air traffic controllers.”

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