What’s the reason for air traffic controller shortages?

Despite not reaching a crisis point, the aviation sector does have a problem with ATC shortages. Keri Allan explores the reasons behind it and the measures being taken to improve things.

The shortage of air traffic controllers is an industry-wide problem; however, the scale of the issue differs depending on who you speak to. 

NATS, for example, which provides air traffic control services to 14 UK airports, says it doesn’t have a shortage of controllers, while the stance of the trade union Prospect is that it’s manageable, but a problem none the less. Prospect states that the UK currently has fewer air traffic control officers (ATCOs) than in 2019 and that the pace of retirements is causing pressure to rise.

According to the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA), there’s an obvious shortage of controllers in almost every part of the world. Patricia Gilbert, IFATCA’s Americas executive VP says Asia Pacific is the least affected, but across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, ATCO shortages are a clear cause for concern.

Her European counterpart, Frédéric Deleau, seconds this, stating that in 2023 there was a reported shortage of between 700-1,000 ATCOs across Europe.

“Every country I’m in contact with across the western hemisphere has significant staffing concerns (regarding ATCOs),” notes Gilbert. “I would say a lot of this has to do with the rapid return to air travel we saw after Covid-19. Going into the pandemic when travel shut down, many countries reduced their ATCO workforce, offering early retirement and in some cases letting go of trainees. Many also stopped hiring and training, which added to the staffing problems they’re now seeing.”

Rather than being the cause of the shortages we see today, Covid-19 simply exacerbated an existing problem, she says, pointing to the fact that reoccurring US government shutdowns caused hiring and training of ATCOs to stop and start prior to the pandemic. Deleau adds that the 2008 financial crisis also had an impact internationally as organisations took measures to reduce costs, including reducing investments in recruitment and training.

“If you look at small island nations, such as the Caribbean, they may only be operating with 15-30 controllers, so it doesn’t take the loss of many to cause a problem to everyday operations,” Gilbert also points out.

Fresh blood needed

Covid-19 did bring this problem to a head, however, by creating a shortage of new ATCOs coming through the pipeline. With retirements and people leaving the profession for other reasons – including burnout – services aren’t always running at full capacity. 

“Because of the way ATCO training works, this has since become self-fulfilling, because each trainee needs a certain number of supervised hours, says Prospect’s national secretary Steve Jary. “If you have fewer instructors, that reduces the number of people you can train. It’s also not simple to, say, draft someone from elsewhere to cover a shift – ATCOs are trained for specific sectors of airspace.” 

There is more overtime being worked up to the prescribed safe limits.

In order to deal with staffing challenges, we’re seeing some ATCOs undertaking longer shifts or working weeks. These are still within the strict rules set around working conditions but can affect their mental health and increase their risk of making a mistake, with Gilbert highlighting that data shows that fatigue does eventually affect your cognitive ability to do the work well.  

One ‘sticky plaster’ solution has been to delay or cancel flights if there’s simply not enough staff available for them to do their jobs safely.  

“There is more overtime being worked up to the prescribed safe limits, but the only measure to keep the skies safe with short-term unplanned shortages is to reduce the volume of traffic. This means increasing the gaps between the traffic and, in airports, occasionally closing the runway to enable the ATCOs to take the breaks they are required to by the regulator,” Jary notes.

Taking action for the future

It will take years to fully recover from these staffing shortages, but the industry is working hard to repopulate its ATCO pipeline. 

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hired 1,500 new controllers last year and plans to hiring another 1,800 in 2024, as well as ensuring every seat in its Air Traffic Controller Academy is full. It’s also working with Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI) programmes to ensure that graduates have the necessary skills to quickly move to on-the-job-training at a facility.  

“We’re increasing the controller training pipeline by authorising institutions in the AT-CTI programme to provide the same thorough curriculum offered at our academy,” says an FAA spokesperson. “An enhanced AT-CTI programme for select colleges will incorporate the new curriculum in their next school year, which will allow for immediate facility training upon graduation.”  

Across the pond, all the training positions in NATS college and units are full. Gatwick, which made headlines last year due to staffing shortages, will have 20% more controllers this summer says NATS’ COO Kathryn Leahy, thanks to some returning from long-term medical absence and others completing their training in Spring 2023.

ATCOs are trained for specific sectors of airspace, meaning covering staff shortages in a specific location can be tricky.

“We’re confident resilience will be better this year,” she says. “We’ve always been clear it takes considerable time to train new controllers for the very busy Gatwick operation, and we plan to be back to a full complement by summer 2025.”  

This situation cannot be improved overnight, says Deleau, be he does point to things being a little less challenging so far this year compared to last. However, he noted that its far from time to become complacent. “We have a substantial traffic increase on our doorstep and a huge wave of controllers who will retire by 2030, and due to the nature of the job, we cannot prolong their careers for a further decade.  

“Training the necessary amount of ATCO staff and building buffers will take time. Technology will help the system but will not replace humans, at least not in the short to medium term. Investment in people is still the future of air traffic control” he notes. 

Gilbert adds that we must also remember not all trainees make it through a programme. “If you hire 2,000 trainees today, that doesn’t equate to 2,000 certified ATCOs in three years’ time. It’s probably more like 35%-50% of that number.” 

Stopping the negative spiral

According to Deleau, we’re in what he calls a "negative spiral", which can only be stopped with massive effort and investments. These are being made now, he says, but to stop this from ever happening again, we need continuous investment, even during tough times.

“We need to think differently going forward; such as having more international collaboration, cohesion and integration. Instead of having this patchwork of decision-making, which creates this fragmented airspace, we need one common response,” he explains.  

“If we could have a system that’s managed under one international not-for-profit consortium or agency, a ‘Single European Sky’ covering everything from procurement to training and working conditions, I believe our efficiency and performance would be improved.” 

That may be food for thought, but Deleau concedes that there isn’t one short-term magical solution to the situation we find ourselves in today. The experts do agree on one thing, however; it will take time for the situation to improve.