Bloomberg: FAA Has Room for Furloughs Without Flight Delays
(Bloomberg) — The Federal Aviation Administration has more than enough air traffic controllers to manage furloughs without flight delays, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of the agency’s staffing data.
The FAA, with the consent of the controllers’ union, could keep sequestration from affecting flights by targeting furloughs at airports with excess numbers of controllers, but the agency has declined to pursue that strategy.
The FAA began implementing its plan Sunday to cope with sequestration. The plan involves furloughing all of its 47,000 employees, including air traffic controllers, for as many as 11 days between April 21 and Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The plan would result in a 10 percent reduction in controller staffing levels.
The agency has identified 13 airports that could see heavy to moderate flight delays because of the sequester-driven staffing cuts. Those airports handled 36 percent of all commercial passengers in 2011, and significant delays have been experienced at some airports since the furlough plan went into effect.
Enough Controllers, Even With Furloughs?
The FAA said 13 airports would experience the most delays due to sequestration-related furloughs of air traffic controllers. However, a Bloomberg Government analysis estimates that only six of those airports won’t have enough controllers even after the furloughs are applied.
Airport/Percent Above/Below Minimum Staffing Level
Fort Lauderdale International/15%
Los Angeles International/12%
San Diego International/11%
San Francisco International/7%
Hartsfield – Jackson Atlanta International/1%
Newark Liberty International/-8%
John F. Kennedy International/-9%
Source: Federal Aviation Administration data, Bloomberg Government
Bloomberg Government examined data in the FAA’s most recent long-term staffing plan, which outlines staffing needs for all air traffic control facilities as of Sept. 24, 2011. Bloomberg Government applied a 10 percent cut to each facility’s controller staffing to determine which airport control towers would be “understaffed” as defined by the FAA.
Bloomberg didn’t include “developmental” staff — essentially controllers-in-training — in its calculations of controller staffing availability.
The FAA would have a surplus of about 140 controllers nationwide, even after furloughs, according to the Bloomberg Government analysis.
The FAA is overstaffed at certain facilities because a large portion of controllers are expected to reach retirement age over the next couple of years, among other reasons.
The staffing cushion would allow the nation’s air traffic control system to absorb the furloughs without disrupting airline traffic if the FAA decreased staffing levels only at airports with excess staffing, rather than spreading the furloughs equally across all airports.
Seven of the 13 airports the FAA warned would experience the most delays should have enough controllers to support regular air traffic even with furloughs, according to BGOV’s analysis. LaGuardia, one of the six airports falling short, is staffed closely to traffic demand. Without furloughs, the airport’s control facility had exactly the minimum number of controllers needed. With the furloughs; it’s four controllers short.
Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport is short 18 controllers given the furloughs, and a few other airports are just short of the total needed.
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport shouldn’t be affected by furloughs. The nation’s second largest airport by passenger volume had 16 more controllers than the minimum amount required, according to FAA staffing plans. With furloughs in place, the airport has about nine more controllers than the minimum needed.
FAA administrator Michael Huerta eliminated targeted furloughs, suggesting that controllers at less-traveled airports shouldn’t shoulder most of the burden.
Additionally, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association would have to support a decision to target furloughs to overstaffed areas. The collective bargaining agreement between the union and the FAA requires the two parties to agree on a furlough implementation strategy. Supporting an uneven approach would have divided the association’s membership.
Nonetheless, if significant delays persist, it is possible that growing public pressure will induce the FAA and the union to come together on a more rational plan that would ease current traffic delays.
(Matthew Hummer is a senior transportation analyst with Bloomberg Government.)
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