With federal government budget cuts looming on Friday many pilots wonder why the FAA doesn’t just move controllers around to fill in for gaps left by inevitable furloughs. It seems logical that the FAA could close the least used towers and move those controllers to the really busy centers, approach control facilities and towers. But it doesn’t work that way.
The FAA really emphasizes the importance of time in type experience for pilots, but when it comes to controllers, the agency is downright anal on the issue. When it comes to air traffic control, time in position is mandatory.
The ATC system operates at the national level, but is really divided up into 20 centers that are contained within regions of the FAA. There used to be eight regions, but I’ve lost track as at least a couple have merged, sort of.
A center owns the airspace within its boundaries. The center then delegates authority over certain lower level airspace to approach control facilities and control towers. And centers work out agreements with the centers on their boundaries. The agreements detail routes, fixes and altitudes for airplanes transitioning from one center’s airspace into another.
Within a center there are sectors that individual controllers manage. The sectors are divided up laterally and vertically. The same airspace may be sliced into low, high and super high sectors with a controller in command of each chunk. When traffic is heavy all sectors are manned. During periods of lighter traffic several sectors can be combined under a single controller.
If this sounds like a history of the Balkans, you’re right. And like those feuding countries in Europe, people don’t move easily across borders in the FAA either.
The reason controller mobility is so difficult is that each controller must qualify in a position through a lengthy training process. No matter how much total experience a controller may have, he or she is not qualified to take command of a new sector or tower position without being trained by another controller who is fully qualified in that position.
Controllers are hired initially by a center and sent to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. The washout rate used to be very high at the Academy but in recent years the FAA only hires people with military controller experience, or those who have graduated from a few college ATC programs approved by the FAA.
After the Academy a new controller returns to the center or a facility within the center to begin the long process of qualifying on a position. There are many hours working in simulation, and more hours plugged in and working with a fully qualified controller. When we’re flying it’s not unusual to hear another voice break in with a change in a clearance or instruction you have just been given. That’s almost always the fully qualified controller helping out the trainee.
Eventually controllers are certified at several positions in their facility. Some may only work a VFR tower where the positions are ground and local control. At other combined facilities controllers work both the tower cab positions and rotate down to the radar room to work approach and departure. Center controllers never get to look outside but they rotate among several sectors within the center as they qualify.
At one time to qualify a controller would have to draw, from memory, the complete airspace of a sector, including every airway, intersection, approach procedure and the minimum altitudes for everywhere. That’s no longer the absolute standard, but knowledge of every airspace detail is still necessary to qualify.
So, if the FAA closes a lower traffic tower or facility to meet the required budget cuts those controllers aren’t going to be of use to the busier facility for a long time to come. It would take many, many months to certify controllers at new positions, and some may not be able to make the switch from tower cab to radar in any case. It would be like an airline or flight department buying an entirely new fleet of airplanes all at once and expecting the same pilots to fly the new types the next day, or next week.
If sequestration happens on Friday, and the FAA furloughs controllers, there will be no quick fix by moving controllers around to fill in the gaps. It will be much like the many months after the controller strike and firings in 1981where it took several years to get the system back up to full speed. I lived through those post-strike days waiting on the phone to get a GAR (general aviation reservation)—or trying to—for every flight, often being delayed and not having the same flexibility in altitudes and routing. The aftermath of the controller strike and firings helped push general aviation deeper into a recession that had started just before the strike. I hope I never have to fly through that again.