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Could ‘Sully’ Help America’s Air Traffic Controller Shortage?

Do you have what it takes to find an emergency landing for an airplane that has lost both engines, while continuing to coordinate other airplanes taking off and landing?
air traffic controller shortage
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If so, there may be a job for you. The number of certified air traffic controllers is at a 27-year low, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The new blockbuster movie Sully, starring Tom Hanks, celebrates the heroism of the real-life pilot who saved all 155 lives on board Flight 1549 by ditching it in the Hudson after geese hit and disabled both engines on Jan. 15, 2009. Less famous are the air traffic controllers who kept their calm as they desperately tried to clear and locate a runway to assist the troubled plane while simultaneously juggling other aircraft and hearing the captain say “we’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller who communicated with Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger that day, testified in a congressional hearing a month after the accident that he thought he would be the last person to talk to anyone on Flight 1549 and that watching the plane disappear from his radar screen was “the lowest low” he’d ever felt.

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“It has taken over a month for me to be able to see that I did a good job: I was flexible and responsive, I listened to what the pilot said and made sure to give him the tools he needed,” Harten testified. “I stayed calm and in control.”

At those same hearings, others, including Sullenberger, testified that the economic downturn after the 9/11 terrorist attacks had hit the aviation industry especially hard, and some even predicted the staffing challenges it faces today.

The forced federal spending cuts known as the sequester in 2013 didn’t help matters. The resulting hiring freeze is partly to blame for today’s shortage of air traffic controllers. Because training new hires takes two to four years, the effects of that hiring freeze are hitting now, which happens to be when a wave of recent retirements is hitting, too. The president of the union representing controllers blamed the shortage on budgetary missteps and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s red tape. Some members of Congress even say the FAA is not hiring enough.

But the FAA said it’s addressing the problem. In early August, the agency announced it’s hiring air traffic controllers.

Most newly hired air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and trainees who graduate from the academy must first work as developmental controllers and complete established requirements before becoming a certified air traffic controller, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the effort could be well worth it. The median salary for an air traffic controller comes in at around $85,000.

And while some people might say that guiding multiple planes through thunderstorms or even good weather is too stressful to be their idea of a dream job, most air traffic controllers report being happy with their work.

New technology aims to ease some of the pressure. The FAA recently rolled out a new system called Data Comm that lets air traffic controllers and pilots exchange information electronically. Currently, they have to spell out their positions and destinations using the cumbersome foxtrot-lima-sierra-tango alphabet. The new system is part of the FAA’s Next Gen program aimed at modernizing the nation’s air traffic control system.

Even with promising technology, the job of air traffic controller isn’t getting a publicity boost, with the recent headlines that too few air traffic controllers are filling too many positions, resulting in tired and overworked employees.

Could Sully the movie elevate the often overlooked, behind-the-scenes job to one on par with pilots? It may be too soon to tell if pop culture will influence this particular job shortage, but if you want to get a head start, take the FAA self-assessment to gain a foundational knowledge about basic air traffic concepts.

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1 Comment on "Could ‘Sully’ Help America’s Air Traffic Controller Shortage?"

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I think Christine Laue needs to get the full story of why there is a shortage of Air Traffic Controllers. I am an ex-air traffic controller who walked away from the job. I worked at several different airports, including one of the busiest in the U.S. It is one of the most stressful jobs to have and compared to a pilots salary, the pay is not worth the headaches. Explain why a pilot like Sully, who is responsible for his aircraft, the crew and passengers make +$200,000 and works less hours. When the Air Traffic Controller will be working several… Read more »
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