In view of the limited understanding of the relationship between safety and staffing in general and the partial and unvalidated efforts being taken to address fatigue in particular, caution is needed before major changes in controller staffing levels or practices are implemented. Current staffing levels appear to ensure adequate safety, but FAA does not collect the information required for more detailed insights and data-driven decision making with regard to changes in controller staffing, including those associated with the transition to NextGen.
A better understanding of the relationship between safety and staffing can be fostered by involving controllers in discussions of staffing. Such discussions can both help ensure safety and involve the controllers in determining alternative staffing solutions. Addressing issues highlighted by controllers, for example through training or visible changes in policy, and providing prompt feedback to controllers about actions taken in response to their suggestions are important features of a strong safety culture. One mechanism for such discussions is the reporting of safety concerns by controllers via the Air Traffic Safety Action Program. However, FAA could not describe to the committee a coherent process for using these reports and other safety data to assess staffing, other than examination of fatigue concerns.
The safety of FAA’s ATC services depends not only on the performance of individual controllers but also on the agency’s collective safety culture. Effective communications founded on mutual trust are generally recognized as contributing to a positive safety culture. In the present context, the committee was concerned about the lack of transparency in controller staffing and scheduling decisions, sometimes to the point of appearing arbitrary. Attempts to foster reporting by controllers and participation by controllers in safety councils at both local and national levels are important aspects of safety culture, yet they place additional demands on controllers and must be supported by adequate staffing.
FAA uses a multistep process to determine the numbers of controllers needed to staff each of its ATC facilities in a given year. The process is described in Chapters 3 and 4 and summarized in the following sections. The desired controller staffing ranges for the coming year are given in annual updates to the agency’s controller workforce plan (see, for example, FAA 2013), together with information on the numbers of fully qualified and trainee controllers currently employed at each facility. The staffing ranges are used to develop FAA’s controller hiring plan for the coming year. The overall objective is to create a controller pipeline that ensures the availability of an appropriate number of controllers at each facility to meet forecast demand for services.
Forecasts of air traffic operations are inputs to the agency’s controller staffing standards and subsequent staffing and hiring plans. Forecasting air traffic operations accurately is a challenging task. For commercial aviation, for example, estimates of future passenger demand at individual airports need to be converted into numbers of aircraft operations on the basis of assumptions with regard to such items as airline fleets and load factors. Air traffic can suddenly decrease in response to unexpected events, such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the financial crisis of 2008–2009. Changes in air carrier operations can significantly affect local facilities. In