The National Airspace System (NAS) of the United States is dedicated to ensuring the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic through the largest, most complex air navigation system in the world. The system encompasses a vast array of air navigation facilities, equipment, and services; airports or landing areas; aeronautical charts, information, and services; rules, regulations, and procedures; technical information; and manpower and materials (FAA 2013a). Air traffic controllers are frontline operators in this system. They provide separation between aircraft operating under instrument flight rules (IFR) and a range of other safety functions to all types of aircraft and operations. This report examines the methods used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in estimating how many controllers are needed to staff its air traffic control (ATC) facilities and the processes used by FAA in staffing facilities consistent with these estimates. For context, as of the end of FY 2013 the FAA controller workforce totaled about 15,000, with a cost of approximately $2.8 billion (i.e., on the order of 20 percent of the total FAA budget).1

This chapter describes the job of an air traffic controller and notes how the demands on a controller vary across types of ATC facility and types of traffic. The challenges facing FAA as it seeks to establish safe and cost-effective staffing levels are discussed, and a high-level overview of the current staffing process is provided. The chapter concludes with discussion of the committee’s task and an overview of the report’s organization.


Air Traffic Controller Functions

Air traffic controllers are tasked with ensuring the safe and efficient flow of air traffic through the NAS at all times and under all conditions. The primary functions of air traffic controllers who are “on position” are to separate aircraft safely and issue safety alerts (FAA Order 7110.65). In addition, particularly at busy facilities, controllers’ activities support not only safety through other support functions to pilots but also the efficient handling of traffic within the airspace to increase throughput, reduce delays, and increase operational efficiency (e.g., by allowing flight profiles that reduce fuel consumption). Controllers are required to perform a variety of ancillary functions outside their on-position activities, such as participating in mandatory training and Air Traffic Safety Action Program activities and supporting the development, evaluation, and implementation of new technologies and procedures. Fully qualified controllers [certified professional controllers (CPCs)] may provide on-the-job training for partially qualified controllers [developmental controllers (developmentals) and CPCs in training (CPC-ITs)]. Thus, controllers not only spend time on position working traffic but also time off position fulfilling a range of ancillary duties (see Figure 1-1).


1 Air traffic services for the NAS are also provided by 1,375 civilian contract controllers at contract towers and by more than 9,500 military controllers (FAA 2013b).

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement