Summer Travel Surge: U.S. Airlines Face Staffing Crisis in Air Traffic Control Towers


More people will be flying to both domestic and international destinations this summer than ever before. However, U.S. airlines are facing serious concerns over the government’s failure to adequately staff air traffic control towers.

Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade organization representing U.S. airlines, has accused the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of not taking the issue seriously.

“We have been sounding the alarm on this issue for more than a year that our nation’s air traffic control radar facilities are understaffed and overworked,” A4A President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio said in a statement. “It’s past time Secretary Buttigieg and Administrator Whitaker take action to solve this crisis and increase staffing.”

Bookings have risen 6% from last summer, a welcomed development for the aviation industry as it recovers from the pandemic. A4A anticipates 271 million passengers over June, July, and August.

The organization’s senior vice president of communications stated that airline carriers have adjusted schedules and added flights to ensure a smooth transition into summer. However, one federal agency has fallen short.

A4A claims that the FAA’s failure to adequately staff air traffic control towers will result in significant disruptions for airlines and passengers alike.

“The lack of ATC staffing has a direct impact on airline operations and the traveling public, which is especially concerning as we head into another record-setting summer travel period,” Calio said.

The FAA insists it is prepared for the higher-than-normal summer travel months.

“The FAA is working every day to make sure you get to your destination safely and on time, especially as more people than ever gear up to fly this summer,” FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a statement. “While we can’t control the weather — which is the number one reason for delays — we plan for and work around convective conditions. And to improve safety and enhance efficient operations on the runway, we are installing innovative new surface surveillance technologies at airports around the nation.”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federal agency within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for screening passengers before takeoff, also stated its readiness.

“In close coordination with airport, airline, and travel partners, we are more than ready to handle this summer’s increased travel volumes,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a statement.

Despite these assurances, overworked and understaffed air traffic control towers under the FAA and DOT pose risks to passengers and flight crew. The latest FAA Controller Workforce Plan indicated the agency was short by 3,000 controllers.

“In a recent 12-month period, there were 300 accounts of near collisions involving commercial carriers. That’s almost one near miss per day,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said during a Senate hearing last November. “The near misses we’ve been seeing recently are not normal. They’re a warning that our aviation system is under stress.”

“Coupled with a surge in demand, [it] created essentially a perfect storm that’s eroded the system safety margins down to dangerously thin levels and far too many near misses,” Duckworth added.

Runway incursions and near misses between commercial planes have varied over the years, but fiscal 2023, which ended last September, was one of the worst in a decade, recording 23 incidents at U.S. airports, up from eight in 2017, according to data shared at the Senate hearing.

The shortage of air traffic controllers has forced most controllers to work six-day weeks of 60 hours, often rotating between day and night shifts, which negatively affects their circadian rhythm, according to witness testimony.

Anna Giaritelli
Anna Giaritelli
Anna Giaritelli focuses on homeland security, immigration, and border issues. Anna has traveled to the border on more than 40 occasions since 2018 and has covered human smuggling, the evolution of the war on drugs, domestic terrorism, and migration trends. She is currently based in Austin, Texas.

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