Air Traffic Controller Training: Why are over 20% Washing Out?

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1 in 5 ATC hires not making the grade

In the midst of a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers (ATC), a recent report released by a government watchdog agency revealed that a surprisingly high number of air traffic controllers hired in the last few years did not complete their on-the-job training. At least 22% of students receiving air traffic controller training have dropped out while at the same time a record number of senior air traffic controllers have opted to retire early, resulting in a serious staffing crisis that has left many towers dangerously understaffed and manned by a higher percentage of inexperienced trainees.

Training at air traffic controller schools has always been rigorous, and controllers must be able to successfully handle multiple complex tasks simultaneously while thinking and acting quickly under pressure. While an historically high percentage of candidates “aren’t able to bring all those skills together,” according to FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown, other factors appear to be contributing to the high rate of attrition.

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the 2006 imposed work and pay rules (IWRs) which reduced salaries and benefits, along with adverse work conditions, contributed dramatically to over 4,000 air traffic controllers and ATC school trainees deciding to tender their resignation since that time.

The situation has resulted in a higher burden being placed on the remaining air traffic controllers, including students undergoing ATC training. Although eventually air traffic controllers can earn hefty salaries, trainees frequently work long hours including holidays, weekends, and graveyard shifts, continue in classroom instruction, and face threats of dismissal if they fail to become certified within a specified period of time, leading to stress and fatigue in an environment where they must remain alert. They are also typically paid for several years at a much lower salary (that averages $75,000) than the median income of a fully-certified air traffic controller (about $110,000 per year). Many trainees who left the ATC program cited as their number one reason the inadequate level of pay for the work performed, often lower than salaries paid by previous employers.

Thus it would seem the primary reason why the industry has been experiencing such high turnover when it comes to its air traffic controller trainees is largely financial, coupled with the fact that at the same time trainees must endure conditions where they are often overworked and overwhelmed in hectic understaffed environments.

View a list of air traffic controller schools

Sources:

1 in 5 Air Traffic Control Trainees Wash Out, WPXI News

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Air Traffic Controllers

National Air Traffic Controllers Association Fact-Sheet

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