Staff Shortages in Air Traffic Control

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Staff Shortages in Air Traffic Control

47TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Arusha, Tanzania, 10-14 March 2008

WP No. 166

Staff Shortages in Air Traffic Control

Presented by PLC


This paper is a snapshot of what is going on in the world of air traffic control and the enormous shortages of Air Traffic Control personnel around the globe. With the global shortages of Air Traffic Control personnel there is a huge burden on Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) to perform at optimum levels and provide expeditious services. The aim of this paper is to provide a snapshot of the current shortages around the globe and the different methods used to cope with this phenomenon.


1.1 After the European Regional Meeting in 2006 a request was forwarded to IFATCA to make a snapshot of the air traffic control staff shortage around the globe. IFATCA requested PLC to do an investigation regarding the perceived staff shortages around the globe and how it is affecting air traffic controllers now and in the future.


2.1 Questionnaire on staffing

2.1.1  A questionnaire (Annexure A) was developed and distributed to all MA’s to complete. Unfortunately due to the lack of responses and the small sample size the questionnaire was of little value to this working paper. We could not provide an accurate snapshot of ATC staff shortages around the globe, but significant information regarding MA’s working conditions could be gathered.

2.1.2  Cross reference was made with a CANSO working paper on staff shortages and training to try and fill in the gaps to determine the actual staff shortages for the globe, but as this document was not really representative of the globe the figures remain only an estimate.

2.2 Conditions affected by staff shortages

2.2.1 Leave

For some MA’s leave is either very hard to obtain and/or not sufficient. There is a huge difference in allocated leave to controllers around the globe, from 20 days to 56 days leave. In some countries ATCOs are selling back leave to employers to fill shortages on operational positions. In a high stressed environment like air traffic control, leave is of the utmost importance to keep the body and mind in a condition to perform optimally at all times.

2.2.2  Overtime

Most MA’s reported that huge amounts of overtime are requested by their ANSP to fill the current operational staff shortages. Working overtime will initially be acceptable to the ATCO as it is an extra income but eventually exception will become the norm and standard practice for the ANSP. Overtime is relatively cheap to the ANSP and if ATCOs continue to rescue the ANSP, this practice will never stop. In some cases ATCOs do not have a choice and are forced to work overtime.

2.2.3  Stress

Results of a study published in the British Medical Journal show that work stress is associated with a doubling of the risk of death from heart disease. In promoting cardiovascular health, the traditional advice has always been for people to stop smoking, cut down drinking, eat less fat, and get moving through physical activity.  These latest findings suggest that attention should also be paid to the prevention, mastering or management of work stress.

Adapted from BMJ 2002;325:857 (19 October):  Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in modern society. Employees with high job strain, a combination of high demands at work and low job control, have high stress levels and more than twice the risk of death form heart disease compared with employees who have low job strain. The stress levels and risk for employees with effort-reward imbalance (low salary, lack of social approval, and few career opportunities relative to efforts required at work) were 2.5 times higher. High job strain also showed an increased total cholesterol at the 5 year follow up, while effort-reward imbalance showed an increase in body weight.  The problem has been identified: work stress is bad for your health. So is personal stress. Not only does it double your risk for getting heart disease, long term unrelenting stress can be the cause or exacerbating factor in almost any of our modern day chronic diseases or ailments:

  • infections,
  • cancer,
  • skin problems,
  • premenstrual tension,
  • severe menopause,
  • back problems,
  • chronic fatigue,
  • digestive system problems and
  • lung disease.  Stress management is of the utmost importance to maintain health and wellbeing and restore a sense of serenity and peace while maintaining your creative, productive, high profile lifestyle. Expected results when implementing health and wellness programs:

  • Improved productivity and creativity,
  • higher levels of company morale,
  • reduced absenteeism,
  • improved day-to-day quality of working life for the employer and employee.

2.2.4  Culture curiosity

Due to the natural tendency of humankind to be inquisitive there is a natural urge to explore other cultures and countries. This is however not just found among ATCOs but is a significant trend across the globe in all sectors where there is a huge shortage of qualified professionals.

2.2.5  Remuneration of ATCOs

The remuneration of ATCOs seems to be one of the biggest and most contentious reasons for the staff shortages in some countries. Salaries range from approximately USD100 to USD15000 per month. Most ANSPs are of the opinion that remuneration is not a motivator and will not influence ATCOs to stay or leave their employment. Interesting to note that an ANSP in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) increased their remuneration resulting in more applications from ANSPs where the remuneration is much less.

2.2.6  Staffing numbers and/or principals

Most MA’s reported that the staffing numbers and/or principals reported by their ANSP are insufficient or incorrect. Traffic in most cases is increasing at double the rate compared to the staffing increases for last year. Some ANSPs are opting not to replace retiring staff at this stage. Planning for staff by ANSPs is lacking and it is only realised there is a critical shortage when it is too late. It seems like accurate preplanning is lacking and ANSPs do not like acknowledging to the public and users that there is a staff shortage and keep it hidden up to the last possible moment. Last minute drastic measures are implemented to try and correct the staff shortage and most of the time it involves the remaining ATCOs to help safe the day. This situation adds more pressure to the current system and can lead to tiredness and potential sickness due to a lack of adequate rest periods.

2.2.7  Training

Training ATCOs are very time consuming and unfortunately it is becoming increasingly difficult attracting the correct profile individuals to start ATCO training. Some MA’s reported that ANSP’s are changing courses to try and increase the output of the training schools. However air traffic control is a very complex environment and fast tracking training will never be the answer to staff shortages. Entry requirements have been researched over many years by professionals and are set at a specific requirement for a reason. ANSP’s should never lower the requirement to increase the training rate or for whatever other reason they deem necessary.

2.2.8  Rostering principals

A lot of ATCOs are working very long hours especially at night with either a small or no break granted. There are ANSPs that still work on a morning night principal to squeeze extra time out of ATCOs. In some cases there is no amount of continuous working days specified an ATCO is allowed to work. In the African Middle East region MA’s reported that ATCOs could work for a whole day without having a break.

2.2.9 Travelling benefits

In some countries, ATCOs hired from abroad on a contractual basis receive a travelling benefit for themselves and their family to visit their home country, while native ATCOs do not receive this benefit. In the UAE an additional ticket is now on offer for the whole family to go on holiday to any destination serviced by the National Airline.

2.3 Information deducted from surveys

2.3.1  The average shortage of controllers in 2006 was around 10% and in 2007 7.5% worldwide according to the ANSPs. Looking at what is reported by the few MA’s that completed the questionnaire this shortage is expected to be considerably more. Traffic is increasing yearly whilst staffing levels are at best staying the same or in some cases decreasing in ratio.

2.3.2  According to all ANSPs it seems like they believe that they can solve the staffing problem because their forecasted figures are declining towards 2011 and there should not be any staff shortages after that date. Again looking at the various reports from MA’s it seems that their ANSP are not taking all scenarios in consideration and are bluffing the public and users to try and buy some time.

2.3.3  The culture curiosity of ATCOs should not have an adverse affect on staff shortages throughout the globe, unless the ANSP is underpaying their ATCOs. These ANSP’s will also struggle to attract any ATCOs to join there organization from abroad.

2.3.4  ANSPs should seriously evaluate the benefits ATCOs are receiving in terms of leave, rostering principals, travelling benefits across the globe, housing allowance and in some cases remuneration.

2.3.5  Some ANSPs believe that automation is the answer to their staffing problems. In fact some systems that were supposed to result in a staff reduction required more staff to run the system properly.

2.3.6  Due to the monetary reward most ATCOs don’t mind working overtime to cover daily living expenses and shortfalls in their monthly budget.

2.3.7  Due to the small sampling size this information can not be seen as a snapshot of global shortages of ATCOs.

2.4 How does staff shortage affect an ATCO

2.4.1 A Practical example The number of fully certified air traffic controllers in the United States of America is at its lowest point since 1992. The Federal Aviation Administration stated on 19 October 2007 there are 14,847 air traffic controllers on duty at this time. This figure is inflated since it includes trainees, staff specialists, controllers without medical certification, and supervisors.  Based on the contract ratified by the air traffic controllers in 1998, the system should have 15,606 controllers to operate safely and efficiently. As of December, 2007 the number of fully certified professional controllers is 11,256. There are just not enough experienced controllers to safely operate the US airspace system.  Unfortunately, recent incidents are beginning to prove this. In one week alone (6 – 13 December 2007), there was 1 midair collision, 11 En-route operational errors and 2 runway incursions. This is due to many controllers working 6 day weeks with up to 10 hour per day. This type of scheduling is routine at the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta Hartsfield, where a recent Government Accountability Office investigation found that 52% of staff was regularly working 6 day weeks.  This should hardly come as a surprise, as this facility, as of October 2007, employs only 34 fully certified controllers, nine (9) of which are eligible to retire, compared to the 52 required for safe and efficient operation. Orlando has only 41 fully certified controllers while the FAA admits the desired staffing number is 74. Of the major airports, staffing is worst at Houston, where they are authorized to have 42 fully certified controllers and currently have only 13, a staggering 48% below authorized staffing levels.  The FAA states they are hiring hundreds of controllers a year. This should help, but many are leaving the job prior to getting certified, while veteran controllers are retiring as soon as they are eligible. On 3 September 2006, the FAA imposed draconian work rules and a B-scale pay system on the US air traffic controller workforce, causing many to leave the profession ahead of schedule. In FY2007 there were 906 controller retirements only 17 of which were mandatory. Total attrition to the controller workforce in fiscal year 2007 was 1608. This includes the 906 retirements, 201 resignations, 136 who were fired or died, and a staggering 365 who left their controller positions to become FAA supervisors. Conversely, the FAA claims they hired 1,815 trainees of which only 40 have been certified, primarily in low level towers.  Until something changes, staffing conditions in the United States will become worse, with safety of flight eroding along with staffing numbers. There are currently over 2,200 experienced controllers eligible to retire as of December 2007; that number increases to over 3,000 by the end of fiscal year 2008 (30 September 2008). We believe that the majority of these controllers will retire in January and February 2008, with more throughout the year. This will result in massive delays or a catastrophic accident if traffic isn’t curtailed.

2.4.2 A critical staff shortage has a huge affect on ATCOs due to the nature of the work environment.  ATCOs will have to work overtime and at first this will be acceptable because it is an extra income but eventually this will become the norm and accepted practice for the ANSP. Overtime is relatively cheap to an ANSP and if ATCOs continue to rescue the ANSP, this practice will never stop.  ATCOs willing to work overtime beyond the scope of the law without any force from their ANSP are doing so at their own risk and will be held responsible for all actions in a safety event.  Due to extra shifts (overtime) the ATCOs days off become less and fatigue levels increase dramatically, this will affect judgment. Safety will be affected indirectly or directly (in the event of an accident).  ATCOs will have to work strenuous positions on either combined sectors or sectors that have not been re-evaluated to determine if the sector should be split due to increased traffic movements and complexity.  Working strenuous ATC positions with irregular working hours for excessive periods of time and excessive overtime will have an adverse affect on the ATCOs health and home living environment.  Health Stress Management (Pty) Ltd, warns against cigarette smoking, poor nutrition, substance abuse, a sedentary lifestyle and, most importantly high stress levels, as major contributing factors to work related health problems and reasons for employee absenteeism.


3.1  Reality is that currently there is a significant global staff shortage in ATC and that many ANSPs are not geared to handle this staff shortage. In fact most ANSPs are denying the shortage of personnel and thereby jeopardizing safety.

3.2  MAs should guard against ANSPs not providing sufficient training, wanting to shorten training duration or reduce training requirements when experiencing a staff shortage, with the aim to increase the training flow rate of young ATCOs to satisfy the global demand.

3.3  Different ANSPs look for short term solutions which mostly include working overtime as a cheaper option than trying to hire or staff adequately.

3.4  ATCOs should, where possible, refrain from working overtime to solve staff shortages as their Service Providers could neglect to find it paramount to recruit and train sufficient ATCOs.

3.5  A growing trend towards preventative healthcare plans provides the solution to this problem. Working proactively to reduce the risk of developing disease, as well as the very important promotion of a wellness lifestyle to prevent and treat disease, wellness programs empower the individual to recognise the danger signals of overdoing it, of living an unhealthy lifestyle, and educate employees about taking preventative measures to reduce the harmful effects of their habits and behaviour.

3.6 IFATCA encourages each MA to continue their vigilance in identifying staff shortages.


4.1 It is recommended to insert in the IFATCA Manual on page 4133 following new paragraphs:

3.6 Staffing

3.6.1 IFATCA strongly recommends that MAs establish a specific task force to work with the employer to identify and achieve the required staffing targets. These minimum staffing levels should not only cater for normal operations (including proper staff relief) but also for unforeseen circumstances and/or events.


CANSO presentation on ATCO shortages and training (Bucharest 21-22 March 2007).

IFATCA European MA reports (2007).

IFATCA staff shortage questionnaire (2007).


Annex A – IFATCA Professional and Legal Committee Questionnaire Regarding Staffing

At various regional meetings “staffing issues” have been raised as a concern. Because of the implication this has – now and in the future – on Air Traffic Management Services, IFATCA has decided to try and capture a “snap shot” of staffing in all regions.

All Member Associations (MA’s) are requested to complete the following questionnaire as accurately as possible and forward it to South Africa or fax +2711 928-6444, by 20 August 2007. The information will be used to compile a working paper that will be presented in Arusha Tanzania 2008.

Any questions regarding this questionnaire can be e-mailed or Fax to Peter van Rooyen at the above mentioned details for clarification!

Member Association’s Name?

Member Association’s Country?

Member Association’s Region?

1.  What are the required staffing levels in your country in number of ATCO’s?

2.  Has your service provider got a formal documented procedure for determining the required staffing level? Yes/No

3.  If your answer is yes in question 5, what is the method used to determine the required staffing level?

4.  Are there regulations on minimum safe staffing levels, if so by whom?

Yes/No ____________________________________________________________

5.  Has your service provider got a plan in place to deal with future staffing requirements?


6.  How is your Air Navigation Service Provider coping with current staffing shortages?

7.  Have you discovered any liability issues regarding staffing levels in your service provider, if so please explain?

Yes/No ____________________________________________________________

8.  Are there regulations on staffing and rostering in your country, specifically for Air Traffic Control Officers? Yes/No

9.  How did your traffic increase vs your staffing levels in the last 3 years? Please insert N/A in the relevant box if this information is not available to you.

10. Is Single Person Operation applied in:

11. Is the 4 Eyes Principle applied in:

12. Please provide any other information you would like to share regarding staffing not covered by the questions above?

Last Update: September 29, 2020  

April 12, 2020   359   Jean-Francois Lepage    2008    

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