Controllers Work Less Air Traffic Now Than in 2000

By Robert Mark on August 20th, 2008

Before you all begin sending shipping the uglygrams, let me tell you that neither the title of today’s editorial, nor the concept behind it originated with me.IMG_0292

The idea that air traffic controllers are working less traffic these days – as well as few more interesting tidbits – originated with the man in charge of the agency, acting administrator Bobby Sturgell.

In front of a crowd of 300 to 400 people at this year’s AirVenture a few weeks ago, Sturgell took questions from the audience during the “Ask the Administrator” session.

I had never heard Sturgell in person, but have listened to a ton of people tell me about what a good guy Sturgell is.

As a man, Bobby may well be a great guy, the kind you’d want to have a beer with. And I can tell you that anyone who can ka-thunk a fighter plane down on a moving aircraft carrier at night in bad weather has my respect … as an aviator. But in my experience, pilots make lousy leaders. And as an administrator, Sturgell’s hasn’t altered my opinion on this.

One of the first questions quizzed Sturgell about the status of an NPRM that would potentially require aircraft owners to re-register their aircraft. Sturgell’s face took on a deer in the headlights kind of look as he sought an answer from of one of his trusted advisors sitting in the first row. Nothing. And this was one of the first questions. Not a good sign I thought.

I stood and asked Sturgell why re-opening contract negotiations with controllers was portrayed as such a bad option, especially in light of the rapid exodus of experienced people from towers and radar rooms around the country. Wouldn’t there be a value to keeping the experienced people around for a few years during the transition I wondered?

Clearly irritated at my question, Bobby said that it was a requirement that controllers retire at 56, which meant thousands hired after the 81 controller strike were eligible. He insinuated that those people HAD to retire. I assumed he was also going to tell the audience that the agency had the power to offer exceptions. He never did.

Staffing is Fine

Sturgell told everyone that the agency is “staffing to needs,” and that as a group, controllers are now “handling fewer operations per controller than in 2000.” That one really caught me. Fewer bodies everywhere, people working mandatory six day weeks and 10 hour days AND, they’re working less traffic than eight years ago. That would seem a pretty tough equation to balance.

The agency is having no trouble recruiting people Sturgell added, especially because new controllers can easily reach a $90,000 pay scale in five years. The agency will hire 2,000 new folks in 2009. I never had a chance to ask how many of the 3,000 trainees the agency hired in the past few years either failed in training or simply quit.

To help the audience better understand the issue, Bobby told them that the new work rules did not cut anyone’s pay. And besides, he said, the new contract never happened because it was simply not affordable to the agency, especially since the top one third of controllers average $168,000 annually today.

It was pretty clear Bobby was hoping there would not be anymore to this line of questioning. Sturgell told the audience that he had other labor unions priorities to deal with beside controllers. Inspectors hadn’t had a contract in five years he said. I wonder why?

As a final thought, Sturgell said the reason the controllers are so unhappy is essentially their own fault because the agency had made a $700 million settlement offer before the new work rules were shoved down people’s throats. No one said a word. That was the first I’d heard of that one. Sturgell moved on to another question, so my time was obviously up.

I’m kind of wondering if Sturgell and United’s Glenn Tilton might have attended the same graduate management school. Sure sounds like it to me.


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18 Responses to “Controllers Work Less Air Traffic Now Than in 2000”

  1. Vivian M. Lumbard Says:

    “As a final thought, Sturgell said the reason the controllers are so unhappy is essentially their own fault because the agency had made a $700 million settlement offer before the new work rules were shoved down peoples throats. No one said a word. That was the first Id heard of that one. Sturgell moved on to another question, so my time was obviously up.”


    Be careful whenever any Agency official or spokesperson uses the words “settlement offer” when you are speaking of contracts. To my knowledge, ALL settlement offers from the Agency have been to have NATCA drop all grievances, Unfair Labor Practices and lawsuits as they remotely relate to the Imposed Work Rules. NOT in return, as Mr. Sturgell implied, for a member-ratified collective bargaining agreement.

    During negotiations in 2005/2006, the Agency said they needed 1.9 billion in cost savings. NATCA offered 1.4 billion. Subsequently, during negotiations last year, NATCA found the 1.9 billion, but the Agency walked away. That’s a matter of public record as it was stated by Congressman LaTourette during a House Transportation & Infrastructure hearing.

    Interesting that it’s the controllers’ fault that they’re unhappy, according to Mr. Sturgell. The Agency briefed their own management team in 2006 in St. Louis that if THEY (management) handled the imposition of the work rules correctly, 95% of us would be happy.

    The majority of the upper echelons of the Agency couldn’t admit the truth; they’ve made a mess of it all…from negotiations to implementation.

    Too bad they’re too arrogant to admit they’ve made a mess of the NAS. It’s not just the employees of the FAA who suffer, but the ultimately the flying public.

  2. disbelief Says:

    Wow. Less operations per controller, staffed to needs. Sadly I think stoogel believes all these numbers. I have no doubt his underlings are feeding inaccurate data. Shame on him for verifying their validity. When President Obama takes office in January, lets see what his excuse will be for being untruthful. Wow.

  3. disbelief Says:

    Should read “shame on him for NOT verifying their validity”

  4. Bushed Says:

    Hope ya cleaned the bottom of your shoes after you left the meeting. Lota BS in there it seemed.

  5. Chuck Adams Says:

    I too was at OSH. Unfortunately I was doing a forum of my own during Mr. Sturgell’s. I can tell you $700 million isn’t even CLOSE to what was offered by the FAA. Each time the FAA asked for a monetary concession NATCA matched it. Then the FAA would move the goal posts farther away and ask for more. From the very beginning the FAA had no intention of reaching a ratifiable agreement with us. All we (NATCA) want is the opportunity to go back to the bargaining table and reach an agreement we could ALL live with. We’re losing controllers at the rate of 6 per day. I think I saw somewhere the FAA is only 3.5 to replace them. By the way it takes approximately 3-5 years to become a controller. The FAA is hiring trainees. It is only going to get worse before it gets better. Thanks for allowing me to respond.


    Chuck Adams
    Grand Forks, ND

  6. Gene Caple Says:

    Controllers may be required to retire at 56 but how many, myself included, retired with at least two years of eligibility remaining?

  7. Blue Eyed Buddhist Says:

    Interesting comments by the Acting Administrator- thanks for passing them along.

    Let’s take a little look at what he said.

    From the Administrator’s Fact book, July 2001 edition:

    Total number of bargaining unit employees that are controllers (page 33 of the booklet, page 36 of the pdf file): 14,973
    Total number of operations by ARTCCs for 2000: 46,056,000
    Total number of operations by FAA towers: 52,116,000

    From the Administrator’s Fact Book, July 2008 edition:

    Total number of bargaining unit controllers: 15,010
    Total number of ARTCC operations: 46,748,000
    Total number of Tower ops: 44,067,000

    So on the surface of it, it looks like he’s right. Same number of controllers working fewer planes.

    BUT…. guess what? He’s not right. Why?

    Well, a number of reasons. First of all, the number of controllers for FY 2008 aren’t actually on board; that’s a projection and it’s the first day of the fiscal year. To get to the 14,874 they claim for FY 2007, the FAA had to hire a few hundred newbies at the last possible moment- right at the end of September- and then they parked them in Oklahoma City for a few weeks with nothing to do, because there weren’t really any slots for them at the training academy.

    So they faked those numbers. (Oh, and guess what? The FAA’s leaders get raises based on whether or not they met their staffing goals, which included numbers hired… but I’m SURE that didn’t have anything to do with the scam they pulled.)

    Secondly, and the biggie… in 2006, the FAA hired roughly 1550 trainee controllers. In 2007, they hired around 1800. In 2008, they’ll again hire around 1800.

    Only a very small percentage- maybe 10%- of those hired in 2006 are currently “CPC” (certified professional controllers- full journeymen controllers).

    And nearly none of the 2007 or 2008 hires are full performance level controllers yet.

    In fact, the FAA’s own documentation shows what I’m talking about. Page 28 of the agency’s updated Controller Workforce Staffing plan shows that in 2000, the percentage of the workforce that were trainees was roughly 16%.

    In 2008, that percentage is nearly doubled, to 29 or 30%.

    So let’s go back and look at those numbers again. In 2000, 14,973 total controllers, minus 16% trainees, equals 12,577 CPC controllers.

    In 2007, 14,874 controllers minus 29% trainees equals 10,560 controllers.

    In 2000, 98,172,000 operations in centers and towers divided by 12,577 controllers is roughly 7,800 operations per controller.

    In 2007, 90,815,000 operations in centers and towers divided by 10,560 controllers equals… 8,600 operations per controller.

    That means the average controller, right now, is working 10% more airplanes per year than they did in 2000.

    It also means the Sturgell is full of crap. But then, we knew that.

    Oh yeah… A controller making journeyman status in, say, Chicago Center in 2000 would be paid a salary of $88,440. In 2008 dollars, that would be $109,112. That’s serious coin, sure, but that’s also one of the most demanding jobs in one of the most demanding training programs, after 3 to 5 years of employment, in the world.

    But in today’s FAA, a controller achieving journeyman status in Chicago Center will make around $92,000.

    First of all, that’s a far cry from Sturgell’s $168,000. And second of all, that’s a tidy little cut from the pay level under the old contract.

    So the reality is that Sturgell is lying through his teeth. Today’s controllers are working more airplanes for less money than they did in 2000.

    And of course the results show it- more delays, more stress, more errors, and more people retiring from the ATC workforce.

  8. Own Nav Says:

    It makes me wonder how someone with such an honesty problem could ever become a pilot. I would neither fly with nor drink a beer with this individual. Hopefully, if there was any pilot left in this character, it was the line of crap answer he was about to deliver that irritated him more than your question.

  9. webster Says:

    Wow, we work the same amount of traffic at my facility only with 14 instead of 21 controllers as previously staffed.

  10. Ace Says:

    Mandatory retirement age is 56. I’ll be leaving in 5 years, at age 48, unless they can upright this sinking ship. That’s 8 years less towards my retirement, but it will be worth it to leave early and keep my health.

  11. Chuck Adams Says:

    One other note and I’ll this dead horse alone…..I suggest you visit our website and get the real story. NATCA has a reputation of telling like it is. Not some flowered statistic. I sincerely hope we get this (dispute) fixed soon. I have 2.5 years before I’m eligible….as it stands right now…I’m gone.

    Chuck Adams

  12. Kevin g Says:

    Did Sturgell talk about the ridiculous increase in the amount of people at HQ over the last two years and how nobody in management has given up one cent in pay or benefits toward making the FAA’s operation leaner?

    Management is preparing for another 5% presidential pay increase this January while those of us who do the demanding job which most of them ran from receive nearly nothing.

  13. Don Brown Says:


    What we all meant to say was, “Thanks for asking the question.” :)

    Seriously, all the controllers appreciate your interest and deciding to ask about our issue with your one chance at asking a question.

    And you are right of course. The vast majority of controllers are retiring well before it is mandatory. I myself retired the first week I was eligible. I could have worked 8 more years.

    But I couldn’t. What is often overlooked these days, is that the FAA was short-staffed before the retirement wave started. It’s been understaffed for a decade or more. It made working conditions bad before. Now they’re just intolerable.

    Thanks again.

    Don Brown

  14. Chuck Adams Says:

    Don Brown,

    Our voice of reason. One more point…since these rules were imposed on us, (the FAA still refers to it as a contract) the very folks they’d planned on replacing us are (CTI’S) are leaving in droves for better employment and better working conditions. I agree with my friend Don, thanks for giving us the opportunity to respond and thanks for taking the time to read them.

    Chuck Adams

  15. The FAA Follies » Blog Archive Says:

    […] talking heads and bigwigs have been proclaiming that the agency’s air traffic controllers haven’t suffered a pay cut with the imposition of the agency’s “White Book” work […]

  16. BigAL Says:

    Distortions of the truth at best, but mostly lies.

    At my ARTCC, we’re losing most of our controllers when or soon after they are eligible. This means YEARS before they would normally be forced to retire at age 56. We’re losing them because of the imposed work rules, clear and simple — and this is at one of the more relaxed and easy-going Centers in the country (often referred to as the Country Club of Centers). It must be really difficult (of course, I know it IS) at some of the busier and more short-staffed facilities where, ironically, you want your people more rested and ready to work the big pushes.

    As far as trainees go, out of the 55ish developmentals hired since 2006, we’ve lost 22. Many of those just up and quit, tired of working a second job, preferring better pay and working conditions elsewhere. (Do you really want your controllers working second jobs and getting no sleep???) And this is considered acceptable??

    A scary thing about this system is that the general public won’t see the consequences until sometime down the road — when all the experience has vacated the building, when the lack of redundancy in the safety systems comes home to roost, when the proverbial shiites hit the fans. You get what you pay for people, and the FAA wants to pay less and less for more and more. Good Luck with that.

  17. JDT Says:

    At my facility, we’ve lost 5 people – or, 1/8 of our CPCs- in the past 6 months. Only one was at retirement age. We have an additional 7 that will be eligible within the next 6 months, and all are planning to go the day they’re eligible. Several already have the paperwork filled out.

    Do the math on that one. I’m too tired from getting my butt kicked “working less traffic” to figure out those fractions.

  18. Labor Day 2008: Strategies for Aviation - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] At FAA, Bobby Sturgell suffers from the same ailment. […]

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