Staffing Implications of the Next Generation Air Transportation System

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is updating the National Airspace System (NAS) to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Changes in the NAS have been made since the early 2000s, and in 2003, President Bush and Congress initiated NextGen through the Vision 100—Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act (P.L. 108-176). The effort was originally intended to address the then-projected threefold increase in demand for air travel in the United States relative to 2001 levels, an increase that would strain the ability of today’s system to function effectively and efficiently.

The changes that NextGen will bring about will have consequences for the policies and procedures of air traffic control and likely for the job of the air traffic controller. NextGen will need to address the emergence of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), known as drones, as well as other new technologies and operational improvements. Congress has mandated FAA to integrate small UAS into the NAS by 2015, primarily for commercial purposes. The effect of integration on the NAS will be substantial. The broad category of UAS spans a range of aircraft. Large vehicles with performance and capabilities similar to those of current manned aircraft will be flying within controlled airspace, and new types of vehicles with substantially different flight profiles will be operating at altitudes, speeds, and routes not covered by current air traffic procedures and air traffic controller training. Similarly, FAA has established a national space transportation policy and directed the Air Traffic Organization and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation to collaborate in integrating increased commercial space operations into the NAS.1 Thus, NextGen may involve not only more operations but also the operation of new types of vehicles, which will change the nature of air traffic controllers’ tasks.

This chapter discusses the potential long-term impact of NextGen on controller staffing. It examines how NextGen is addressed in FAA’s latest controller workforce plan and considers controller selection and training requirements for NextGen. Staffing pressures associated with NextGen near- and midterm deployment are discussed, and the key role of controllers in NextGen development is highlighted. The chapter concludes with the committee’s findings and recommendations concerning the staffing implications of NextGen.


NextGen is intended to allow new types of operations and vehicles within the NAS. Implementation of the initial NextGen features has highlighted the potential for staffing issues. For example, optimized profile descent (OPD) allows aircraft to follow a fuel- and time-optimal profile through their descent and arrival into an airport and is intended to save fuel and flight time (Clarke et al. 2004) in comparison with the usual sequence of “step-down” instructions


1 Statement of FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on the National Space Transportation Policy, November 21, 2013. See http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/news_announcements/media/NSTP_statement.pdf.

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