Watchdog questions US flight tower staffing procedures

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
1/27/16

A watchdog for the Department of Transportation is questioning the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) procedures for staffing air traffic control towers across the nation as Congress is weighing a new funding measure for the agency.

The department’s inspector general said in a recent report that the FAA “has not yet established an effective process for balancing training requirements with pending retirements when managing its controller resources at its critical facilities.

“According to FAA, the Agency uses historical data to anticipate the controller retirement pattern at each critical facility and then hire, place, and train enough new controllers to account for those expected losses,” the report said. “However, predicted losses can be difficult to anticipate at the facility level, largely because FAA’s historical retirement data and nationwide trends may not apply to an individual critical facility’s workforce.”

“Accounting for wide variations in facility-specific staffing plans requires regular direct communication and collaborative planning between the air traffic managers and other senior FAA officials,” the report continued. “Yet, only a few of the air traffic managers we interviewed said they were consulted by Headquarters over hiring, staffing, and training decisions.”

The report comes as lawmakers are debating a proposal from House Republicans to privatize large portions of the nation’s air traffic control system as Congress tries to beat a March 31 deadline for renewing the agency’s funding.

It alleges that “the FAA has not established a fully effective process for determining how many controllers to train to replace retiring controllers because the outcomes of FAA’s current training times and process vary from location to location and are largely based on the proficiency of the new trainees.”

FAA officials defended their air traffic controller staffing procedures, saying the agency “always is focused on fully staffing facilities and training its controller workforce to maintain our excellent safety record.”

“The agency is now centrally managing staffing at the national level to maximize the overall benefits for all facilities,” the agency said in a statement. “As part of that process, the FAA is expediting employee transfers from well-staffed facilities to those needing additional personnel. The FAA also recently concluded research on how controllers do their jobs that will help improve overall staffing standards.”

The report about air traffic controller staffing is the latest in a string of critical reports from the Transportation Department’s inspection general about the FAA as debate about the agency’s funding measure heats up in Congress.

GOP leaders in the House have said a proposed nongovernmental entity could better manage the navigation of commercial and private jet flights in the nation’s airspace.

“After examining various models, I believe we need to establish a federally chartered, fully independent not-for-profit corporation to operate and modernize our [air traffic control] services,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a speech last June at the Aero Club of Washington.

The push to privatize most facets of air traffic control comes as the FAA is in the midst of a years-long effort to discard the World War II-era radar technology currently used to manage airplane traffic in favor of a new satellite-based system, known as NextGen.

The conversion has hit turbulence amid missed deadlines and rampant budget cutting in Washington, and supporters of the privatization proposal have said the FAA is ill-equipped to complete the project.

Democrats are mobilizing liberal groups against a Republican proposal to privatize large portions of the nation’s air traffic control system, despite the problems the FAA has experienced with NextGen.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) joined a group of liberal organizations on Tuesday that have collected 115,000 signatures for a petition against a proposal from House Republicans to create a new nongovernmental agency that would take over air traffic control from the FAA.

They said Tuesday that GOP leaders should back off of their air traffic control privatization plan and focus on passing a new round of funding for the FAA.

“An FAA reauthorization bill that includes severing and privatizing Air Traffic Control has not emerged, but, as petitions submitted today from the public demonstrate, the long suspense has understandably fed fears for public safety, loss and downgrading of middle class jobs, and increased costs passed on to passengers — unacceptable tradeoffs,” Norton said in a statement.

“As a member who once practiced constitutional law, I seriously question whether Congress can constitutionally delegate air traffic control to a private, even non-profit, entity,” she continued. “Yet, there is considerable frustration about the dysfunction of the current FAA, which has been repeatedly victimized by the chronic delays and cuts in the appropriations process even before the dangerous sequester cuts.

“We are long past due for serious discussions between Democrats and Republicans that could produce a bill that would pass both the House and Senate.”

The House Transportation Committee is expected to unveil its draft of the FAA bill next month.

http://thehill.com/policy/transportation/267163-watchdog-questions-us-flight-tower-staffing-procedures

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