Amarillo, TX - Flight delays could impact airports nationwide and in Amarillo if a shortage of air traffic controllers is left unchecked, warns the union representing the workers.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) said airport control towers now have the fewest number of trained controllers in 27 years despite more planes in the sky.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the control tower at Rick Husband International Airport is currently fully staffed at 23 employees, but NATCA local union president Shay Bowling said that is not the case. "We currently stand at 12 Certified Professional Controllers as of today," said Bowling. "We are required to have 22. We do have 13 trainees that take two years to certify. We are currently working 6 day work weeks and some 10 hour days. Which is the limits by law."
NATCA said controllers in Dallas Fort Worth and Houston are also working six-day weeks and some are doing the job of three positions combined. "If this is allowed to continue for a longer period of time, fatigue does become an issue," said NATCA Southwest Regional Vice President Andrew LeBovidge. "Right now there are some mitigating tactics that controllers can use and the agency can use, but if it isn't rectified with a little more rapidity it's going to be problematic in the long term."
The FAA said federal budget cuts have caused the agency to fall behind in hiring certified controllers. "The FAA shares NATCA's frustration with air traffic controller staffing levels," said the agency in a statement. "The past government shutdown and budget cuts closed the FAA's controller training academy for nine months, delaying initial training for several classes of new air traffic controllers. As a result, the FAA has been working hard to hire at an increased rate to meet its air traffic controller staffing targets."
LeBovidge said right now safety of the air traffic control system is not at risk but widespread flight delays are highly likely. "There's only so much volume of traffic that each individual controller can handle safely at any given time. So traffic management initiatives could be enacted to help alleviate the burden placed on a single position and that will accumulate into a delay."
The FAA said the agency is actively recruiting new controllers to meet the staffing needs while working around budget cuts.
NATCA is also reaching out to Congress to assist the FAA so flight delays do not become a problem for fliers across the country.