Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) models for determining air traffic controller staffing needs are suitable for developing initial estimates of the number of controllers required at terminal areas and airport towers, but the models used to staff the centers that control air traffic between airports can be improved, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council. In addition, as a matter of priority, FAA should collaborate with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to develop and implement an enhanced tool for all facilities that is capable of creating efficient controller work schedules that incorporate fatigue mitigation strategies.

Air traffic controllers are the frontline operators of the nation’s airspace system, and their primary function is to safely and efficiently separate aircraft from one another and the terrain, as well as issue safety alerts. The FAA employs approximately 15,000 air traffic controllers, at a cost of approximately $2.8 billion or 18% of the total FAA budget.

The committee that wrote the report examined the methods used by FAA to estimate how many controllers are needed to staff its air traffic control facilities and its processes for using these estimates to properly distribute controllers across facilities.

The committee stressed concern about shift schedules that contribute to fatigue, especially those in which controllers work five 8-hour shifts over four consecutive days, the last one being a midnight shift. Although the schedule is popular among controllers because it allows them 80 hours off afterward, it likely results in severely reduced cognitive performance during the midnight shift due to fatigue. FAA established a fatigue risk management program, but recent budget cuts eliminated the program’s capability to monitor fatigue concerns proactively and to investigate whether initiatives to reduce fatigue risks are providing the intended benefits.

“The FAA faces many challenges in identifying the level of controller staffing needed to ensure safe and cost-effective services nationally and at its 315 facilities, starting with the lack of definitive methods for relating staffing levels to safety,” says committee chair Amy Pritchett, David S. Lewis Associate Professor of Cognitive Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, in a release. “Other complications include the uncertainty of air traffic forecasts and the fact that a large percentage of the controllers are eligible to retire, as it can take years to train new controllers. The committee’s recommendations aim to enable controller staffing decisions that are consistent; that are driven by proper science and data analysis; and that will address relationships between ensuring safety, meeting the operational needs of the aviation community, and demonstrating cost-effectiveness.”

The report recommends that FAA analyze a wide range of data, such as accident and incident reports and voluntary reports by controllers, to identify relationships between staffing and safety. In addition, the controller workforce should be involved in staffing decisions, particularly as knowledge emerges about relevant safety issues.

FAA headquarters provides no consistent guidance or tools to local facilities to help them develop their operational schedules. As a result, each facility develops its own schedule independently of FAA’s staff planning process, which may not be the most efficient or incorporate best practices in fatigue risk management, the committee found.

The FAA also should ensure that staffing continues to be appropriate as it implements the new air traffic operations environment associated with the Next Generation Transportation System, a modernization initiative to shift air traffic management from ground-based radar to a satellite system, the report says.

A lack of safety and performance metrics and information about staffing methods limited the committee’s ability to assess the cost-effectiveness of FAA’s overall staffing process.

The study was sponsored by the US Department of Transportation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.