NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It’s consistently ranked as one of the most stressful jobs in America — an air traffic controller. It’s also one of the most important ones, making sure your flight is safe when it takes off and lands.
But according to numbers obtained by NewsChannel 5, Nashville International Airport’s own tower is understaffed.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, they have a target of 47 fully certified air traffic controllers on staff in Nashville. Right now, they only have 33. Six additional staffers, listed as CPC-IT and Developmental positions, also work in the Nashville Tower, but not all of them can work without direct supervision.
Robert Fowler, an Assistant Aerospace Professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s Aerospace program, says the role is crucial to ensure flight safety. “It’s the controllers’ responsibility to make sure that they are separated, that they don’t run into each other,” said Fowler.
With Nashville’s low staffing number, Fowler says it’s likely current controllers are being asked to work additional shifts. “Air traffic controllers are probably working a lot of overtime, probably not getting vacation time they’re entitled to — so they’re overworked,” he said. “If an air controller has to work more than 5 days a week, more than 40 hours a week then are they going to be as alert?”
Fowler says there are two key reasons for the shortage. “COVID is the most recent factor,” he said.
That’s because, during the pandemic, the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City which trains future controllers, shut down for nearly two years. They’re still catching up. At the same time, the FAA saw a record number of retirements.
The slew of retirements dates back to 1981. “President Reagan fired about 10,000 of those controllers who were on strike because it was an illegal strike,” explained Fowler.
Because the FAA had to suddenly hire thousands of replacements, it means many air traffic controllers all started at the same. Now they’re starting to retire at the same time.
The FAA is ramping up hiring, but Fowler warns, the air traffic control shortage may stick around for several more years. “Even if they were able to take care of the shortage in a year, it would still take another one to three years until they were fully competent and certified to take on all the positions,” said Fowler.
Keep in mind, that it takes about three years for an air traffic controller to be fully certified.
A looming government shutdown could make a bad situation, even worse. That’s because the FAA Academy has to shut down during a government shutdown. Acting FAA Administrator Polly Trottensberg spoke about the threat of a shutdown recently:
Both the House and the Senate bills fund us to hire 1800 controllers and we’re gearing up to do that. I will say if there is a government shutdown, that is going to disrupt that process, and the disruption is profound, you know, it is all hands on deck, to hire, train and certify that number of controllers. The government shutdown will just be immensely disruptive to that and really knock us off that target.
We’re not going to compromise on safety and a big part of what the agency does is sort of in the exempted categories, including controllers, But training and contracting, a lot of things do get disrupted. If we shut down for a couple of weeks, it takes a lot more than a couple of weeks to recover, particularly on the training side. So, you know, it’s a strong message. We’ve heard it on every level of our administration — the President, Secretary, and me particularly. It is going to be challenging for a 24/7 operational agency like the FAA, if there’s a shutdown.”
Polly Trottenberg, Acting FAA Administrator
Until the FAA Academy can catch up, fewer men and women are up in the tower, guiding our planes home.