Air traffic controller shortage could mean more flight delays

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Your next flight delay could very well be due to a critical shortage of air traffic controllers, according to congressional testimony Wednesday.

The number of controllers, which was already at a 27-year low, continued to decline in the first three months of this year. Most of the officials who testified said they don't believe safety is at risk. But there was widespread agreement that flight delays are bad and getting worse because of the staffing shortage.

"Unfortunately budgetary missteps and the FAA's bureaucratic red tape have led to a shortage of air traffic controllers," said Paul Rinaldi, president of the union that represents the controllers. He said that shortage will cause "further system inefficiencies, delays, and a reduction in air traffic services for the flying public."

Part of the problem is still a hangover from a 2013 hiring freeze due to the congressional budget fight that led to a funding cut in known as the sequester. That's because it takes two to four years to fully train new hires.

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But Rinaldi and others were critical of the FAA for not hiring all the controllers it was authorized to add since then. About one quarter of the current controllers are eligible for retirement, and there aren't enough replacements in training to fill all those slots, let alone make up for the current shortfall.

Part of the problem was that the FAA did not have a good handle on the how many controllers would be retiring and at what facilities, testified Matthew Hampton, the assistant inspector general for the Department of Transportation. It also does a poor job managing the controllers it does have, "especially at its most critical facilities," he said.

The FAA acknowledged some of these problems in testimony Wednesday, but said steps have been taken to streamline things and address the problem.

But others at the hearing, including members of Congress, said the agency is still not hiring enough.

"It's not clear why the FAA has dropped the ball on controller hiring, placement, and training given the fact that these mass retirements were anticipated for years," said Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing. "Under the status quo, passengers will suffer if the FAA is forced to reduce air traffic flows across the country due to a lack of controllers at key locations."

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