FAA Playing Fast and Loose With Passenger Safety and Flight Delays | Commentary

At a time when U.S. airline passengers are experiencing the highest rate of flight delays in more than 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration is proposing radical changes to its air traffic control management programs that could lead to further flight delays, cancellations and jeopardize aircraft and passenger safety.

FAA plans to scrap the current air traffic controller training program, the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution, that has been successfully training our nation’s air traffic controllers and replace it with a new, untested training program. Under normal circumstances, this may not be problematic. But with thousands of new air traffic control hires anticipated in the coming years and those hires needing three to five years of training, now is hardly the time to re-invent the wheel.

Recent Department of Transportation’s Inspector General audit reports outlined FAA’s weaknesses to implement program and contract management practices as a major cause of it achieving only half its training goals over the past five years. The IG found that the FAA overran its budget — using up a full five-year budget in just four years; failed to fully identify total training costs in advance; and failed to find innovations to reduce the training time for controllers.

Rather than address their internal inefficiencies and mismanagement, FAA is appearing to look for a “quick fix”. This kind of action is not without consequences to airline safety, efficient passenger travel and taxpayers.

Knowing this, the House and Senate Appropriations committee this week included language in the fiscal 2015 omnibus appropriations bill that stalls FAA’s attempts to scrap the ATCOTS training program and requires the agency to meet specific directives from the IG report, before considering any other air traffic controller training options.

Further, some 11,000 air traffic controllers hired in the wake of the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike will soon be entering into mandatory retirement. Meanwhile, the FAA has overhauled its hiring process shifting focus from recruiting highly-qualified graduates who have studied air traffic control at FAA-accredited college aviation programs and military veterans with extensive aviation experience to hiring “off-the-street.” This includes no requirement of previous aviation experience or any higher education — resulting in fewer qualified controllers entering the federal workforce.

Coupled with the additional hiring delays stemming from last year’s government shutdown and sequestration, we face a looming shortfall in the number of qualified air traffic controllers to monitor U.S. flights and airspace and provide the necessary safety and smooth travel to air passengers.

The FAA has created a perfect storm in the skies. These recent changes and proposed changes will solve nothing and only serve to exacerbate the impending shortage of air traffic controllers — ultimately delaying passengers and costing taxpayers.

With every new system migration or training program there are a number of risks. Moving to a different air traffic controller training program would likely take years to fully implement at significant taxpayer expense without any guarantees of its success. It would also massively disrupt the training at the very time when we need to be aggressively activating more hires.

The FAA has had more than 10 years to plan for the imminent retirement of these air traffic controllers yet it has failed to proactively train and hire replacement controllers. We should view these proposals for what they really are – a smokescreen to divert attention away from the FAA’s own lack of oversight and mismanagement practices, not a structural issue with the current training program in place.

The efforts by House and Senate Appropriators to keep the FAA from dismantling its current air traffic controller training program are a step in the right direction, but are only a temporary fix.

Ultimately, rather than reinventing the wheel with a new air traffic controller training program that will only increase the current shortfall of air traffic controllers and cost to taxpayers, the FAA should focus on fixing its own internal practices, and make minor adjustments to the current training program as indicated. This is the only way we can ensure we have an adequate number of qualified air traffic controllers to ensure airplanes and passengers get to their destinations safely and efficiently.

The traveling public deserves real solutions, not another Washington D.C. sleight of hand.

Former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, served as a member of Congress from northeast Ohio for 18 years. He is currently president of McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies.