Findings and Recommendations

This study has examined whether the methods used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in estimating staffing needs for air traffic controllers ensure the safe operation of the National Airspace System (NAS) in the most cost-effective manner. The committee considered the mathematical models used in generating the initial staffing targets and the staffing plan and how the plan is executed to ensure distribution of the intended number of staff to the right facilities. The effects of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and of current and estimated budgets and available funding on generation and execution of the plan were also considered.

This chapter summarizes the key insights from the detailed descriptions, findings, and recommendations provided in the preceding chapters. The chapter concludes with the committee’s major recommendations.


The first requirement of the air traffic control (ATC) system is to ensure safety. This requirement drives the key functions assigned to air traffic controllers. ATC has been identified as a causal or contributing factor in only a few aviation accidents, according to reports from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). However, nationwide assessments of safety mask differences in accident rates across industry segments: most notably, the rate of ATC-related accidents1 for general aviation, although small, is about eight times that for commercial aviation (see Chapter 2). In addition, the committee’s relatively simple analysis indicated that loss of separation2 was not the most frequent cause of the few fatal ATC-related accidents between 1990 and 2012. In many of these accidents, including many involving general aviation, NTSB reports (see Chapter 2) indicate that aircraft were put in a hazardous situation by controllers’ failure to provide safety alerts, including weather alerts, terrain alerts, and minimum safe altitude warnings. The level of ATC staffing may be related to these accidents in terms of whether controllers’ workload allows them to deliver both the required safety alerts and the other safety-related services that they provide when circumstances permit. FAA recognizes that controller workload may limit the ability to provide these additional services (FAA Order 7110.65, Paragraph 2-1-1). In analyzing accident and incident reports, it may be worthwhile to examine whether controller workload may also limit or impede controllers’ ability to provide the required separation and safety alert services.

Furthermore, evidence indicates that fatigue—defined as a physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability—is a risk factor for errors and accidents in work of the type performed by air traffic controllers. Such work requires constant attention and is often


1 The rate of ATC-related accidents is defined as the number of ATC-related accidents per 10 million ATC operations.

2 For purposes of the committee’s analysis, loss of separation refers either to loss of separation between two aircraft in the air or on the ground or to loss of separation between an aircraft and a ground vehicle.

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