The breakthrough comes after months of negotiations and several short-term extensions of the agency’s authority.

The breakthrough comes after months of negotiations and several short-term extensions of the agency’s authority. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Congress reaches a bipartisan breakthrough on air traffic controller staffing

After months of false starts, an FAA reauthorization is within reach and promises to address critical workforce shortfalls.

Lawmakers have struck a deal to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, key negotiators announced early Monday as they unveiled a $105 billion measure that will lead to the hiring of thousands of new air traffic controllers. 

The breakthrough comes after months of negotiations and several short-term extensions of the agency’s authority. Employee groups, stakeholders and the agency itself had pressed for a resolution, in large part so they could receive the funding and approval to address the significant staffing shortfalls in the agency. 

The measure includes a provision backed in a House version of the bill, but not in the Senate’s draft, to require FAA to hire to the maximum level it can process at its air traffic controller training academy for the next five years. The provision marks a major victory for the workforce’s union, the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers, which has sought to reverse recent trends that have caused FAA to employ more than 1,000 fewer controllers today than it did in 2012. 

The bill would task a third party with determining which staffing model FAA should use to determine future workforce levels. In the interim, the agency would have to use the more aggressive approach a previous working group recommended that called for a total of 14,000 ATCs. The agency is currently targeting just 12,000 controllers and employs around 11,000. The measure would task FAA officials with identifying any factors that could inhibit training and hiring, as well as their plans for clearing those hurdles. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and helped write the bill, said the measure would mark the first “major upgrade” to controller hiring in decades. The staffing efforts would ensure the country sets “the gold standard in safety,” she added. 

Rep. Sam Graves, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and led the negotiations from that chamber, said Congress would move the bill “as expeditiously as possible.” 

“The American people deserve nothing less than the safest and most efficient aerospace system in the world, and to that end, our bill provides critical safety enhancements, grows America’s aviation workforce, invests in infrastructure at airports of all sizes, sets clear priorities for advancing innovative aviation solutions, improves the flying public’s travel experience, and ensures a healthy general aviation sector for years to come,” Graves said. 

The Senate is set to take up the measure with initial votes this week. Current FAA authority is set to expire May 10. 

The package dropped a provision the Senate had originally included to require a second training academy for air traffic controllers, instead calling for expanded capacity at the existing facility. The measure would require a workforce and recruitment plan for instructors at the academy, as well as for positions related to aircraft certification and aviation safety. Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents safety and certification personnel, has said the staffing needs were similarly dire in those categories. PASS President David Spero said FAA must move quickly to implement the provisions of the bill once passed and recent safety issues with Boeing aircraft demonstrate the urgency of fully staffing the agency. 

“We have been sounding alarm bells for more than a year about how inadequate staffing among both our Technical Operations and Aviation Safety workforces can have a detrimental impact on aviation safety,” Spero said, calling for Congress to swiftly approve the measure. 

Another provision of the bill would allow FAA to consider employees’ telework status when setting pay rates. 

Agency officials, the White House and lawmakers in both parties have stressed that growing FAA's workforce is a top priority and a failure to address it could reduce safety and increase flight delays. According to recent findings by the National Airspace System Safety Review Team that FAA formed after 10 safety incidents occurred in late 2022 and early 2023, the staffing reductions occurred despite a marked increase in the complexity of the agency’s operations. The capacity deficiencies have created inefficient operations, the panel found, requiring a constant reshuffling of resources to ensure the airspace can function. In the process, it said, employees are being stretched thin and “critical redundancy” is being eliminated.

In recent days, near misses have occurred on the runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Virginia. 

Overtime use is at an all-time high within FAA, which the review team said is leading to more absenteeism, lower productivity and increased fatigue. Insufficient staffing is forcing FAA to negotiate schedule reductions with certain areas to maintain the safety of operations, implement more ground stops and combine locations to fall under one post.

FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker recently commissioned a report on employee fatigue and he announced last week that per the report’s findings, he will begin requiring at least 10 hours off between shifts for controllers—up from nine hours currently—and 12 hours before overnight shifts. Whitaker noted FAA reached its goal of hiring 1,500 ATCs in 2023 and is on pace to meet its target of 1,800 hires this year. 

“Getting more qualified individuals into our air traffic facilities will help alleviate the demands on the current workforce,” Whitaker said. 

NATCA President Rich Santa praised the new bill for both the hiring provisions and for expanding simulator training and academy capacity. 

“These changes, as part of a comprehensive hiring, training, and staffing plan will, over the term of this five-year authorization bill, make great improvements to staffing our air traffic control facilities, which will reduce fatigue and improve safety and efficiency,” Santa said.