AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s been busy at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport lately.
On Sunday, officials said in a social media post that more than 35,000 people are expected to depart from AUS on Monday. It could mark a top-five, record-breaking day at the airport.
Along with those travel numbers increasing, concerns for safety are on the rise as well.
Letter to the FAA
On Monday, U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, urged Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting Administrator Polly Trottenberg to address low air traffic controller staffing levels at AUS.
In the press release, Doggett specifically called on the FAA to:
- Increase both the number and training of air traffic controllers
- Advance the ranking of AUS to a level 10 terminal facility
- Expand airspace levels surrounding AUS
Doggett said right now, private planes in particular can come very near the airport without having to talk to the tower. He hopes to solve that issue by expanding the airspace level around AUS.
“That will give them a little more flexibility to not be trying to guess what that moving blip on the radar is out there,” Doggett said.
When it comes to advancing the ranking of AUS, the congressman said that will get the controllers some additional pay and some additional resources.
“With the high cost of living in Austin, the high cost of housing, our affordability challenges, it is a challenge to get people to transfer from other airports into Austin,” Doggett said. “We need not just trainees but experienced air traffic controllers to provide us the level of safety that we really deserve.”
In the letter, Doggett referenced a number of incidents between aircraft at AUS.
He listed the following:
- November 2022 “near miss” between Southwest and American Airlines aircraft
- February 2023 incident between a landing FedEx plane and a Southwest plane departing on the same runway
- April 2023 incident where a SkyWest jet was routed to ascend into the path of a descending Southwest plane
“I’m concerned that we not wait until we have a disaster that cost many lives,” said Doggett. “The bottom line is get us more staff, get us more controllers.”
He said AUS’ tower and approach control volume increased 30% from before the pandemic.
Still, even with that growth, Doggett said controller staffing has not increased.
“According to your Administration, Austin has just 35 fully certified controllers, about 40% below the target level jointly set by the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association,” he said in the letter. “ABIA is working over 70% of its shifts below FAA guideline numbers for appropriate staffing.”
The FAA’s response
In a statement sent to KXAN from the FAA regarding the letter, it said it would respond directly to Doggett.
Regarding staffing levels, the FAA said “The AUS Tower is authorized to staff 42 controllers. The current number of controllers at AUS Tower is 35. There are currently another eight Certified Professional Controllers in Training (CPC-IT) (not academy grads but controllers previously fully certified at another facility) at the facility.”
Aviation Director at Texas A&M University Central Texas campus, Carson Pearce, said these shortages are felt nationwide.
“People are pulling double shifts,” Pearce said. “They’re stretched to the limit.”
But he said it’s not easy filling these positions.
Pearce said it’s not because fewer people are applying, but because the application process is difficult.
“There were 56,000 applicants for 1,500 air traffic controller slots this year and 6% of that group passed,” Pearce said. “Which pretty well filled that 1,500 person slot. But it’s nowhere near what is needed in order to plug the holes that are in the air traffic control system nationwide.”
Benefits of the job
Even though it’s a difficult field to get into, there are a lot of payoffs.
Pearce said the median salary for an air traffic controller is about $130,000 a year. He said there’s also a mandatory retirement at 56-years-old.
“That is because of the stress of the job and they need you to be sharp,” he said.
But, he doesn’t see the shortage letting up anytime soon, which could lead to more delays for passengers.
So, Pearce encouraged flyers to be patient and plan accordingly when booking tickets.
“Two hours minimum between connections, at least that’s my policy,” Pearce said.