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Currently, the military and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suffer from a shortage of air traffic controllers. It is always expected that one would feed the other; however, that is not the case. Aviation industry leaders are going to have to come up with new solutions to not only train new air traffic controllers but assist in managing their workload to match the increased use of airspace and the inclusion of growth with Unmanned Arial Systems (UAS)
Why does the industry continue to see a shortage in Air Traffic Controllers if it is a critical skill? How does the industry get after avoiding a catastrophic shortage and maintain safe airways? For five consecutive years, the FAA has failed to meet its hiring goals. Leading to a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers and, air traffic has only increased. Air traffic control is a critical public service job, so why are goals not being met? There are currently 10,859 controllers in place, the lowest in 27 years, down 10% at their peak in September 2012. More shocking still is, out of those certified controllers, a staggering 30% are eligible for retirement. Leading to controllers, especially in airports with heavy traffic, to be overworked and by consequence, causing widespread chronic fatigue. Current air traffic controllers are working six days a week, regularly, to meet current travel requirements. The FAA worked with NASA to study the effects of long hours and the impact of fatigue for overworked controllers, this coming four years after NASA warned the FAA that chronic fatigue was a severe safety issue. Trish Gilbert, a union vice president, has faulted "bureaucratic inertia" as a reason for hiring issues as well as saying the FAA has known about these issues for a long time and are working to resolve them. Lack of communication, as well as other issues, such as funding problems, are reasons why the situation remains dire. It is also a lack of supply for the job. There are military counterparts who seem like a perfect solution to hiring problems, yet very few transition into the job as civilians, either from lack of desire to continue based on their military experiences, unwillingness to relocate again, not having the exact type or ratings sought after by the FAA or simply aging out. The FAA has an age limit currently set at 34 years old, and while it is certainly understandable to have younger controllers who could potentially work longer, it shrinks their selection for potential hires. Expanding the age will solve a critical issue, and help those currently employed from suffering from chronic fatigue, retiring early or even worse causing avoidable accidents. Perhaps an age waiver for trained prior service members could safer environment for both the current and future controllers as well as the travelers who put their trust in them. Which raises the question, are their other possible solutions to lighten the workload for controllers?
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are said to be the next step in facilitating some forms of air travel. Originally conceived as an aid in situations deemed too dangerous for humans, they have evolved into more sophisticated machines. They can be controlled remotely by a human, but as the technologies expand, they are used more frequently by onboard computers that communicate autonomously with base computer systems. Plans of use for UAVs need to remain uncomplicated in their tasks, thinking only about transporting mail and like items, quicker and with less human resources, this way removing some stress off busy controllers. Conflict Detection and Resolution (CDR) and adapted Optimal Reciprocal Collision Avoidance (ORCA) are systems that have been designed for the safe flight of UAVs in any type of terrain. Development of this type of technology from an adjacent industry can be crucial to helping with controller fatigue. Because UAVs would be low flying aircraft, they will have to be able to detect and avoid collision with whatever terrain surrounds them as well as other aircraft hey may come into contact with personal use drones, helicopters, and other UAVs. Not all systems can be perfect, so these tests are only in the simulation stages to make the use of UAVs safe and practical. A downside is planning out route channels and making their flight as practical as possible, keeping in mind a battery will power these aircraft. When taking into consideration all low flying vehicles, the skies will be busier than ever. However, if CDR and adapted ORCA can be perfected, the UAVs filling the airspace could avoid collisions, managed by a sophisticated computer system and it can be programmed for each travel destination, all while reducing controller's workload creating safer airspace for everyone to travel in.
The future is full of exciting possibilities, but that does not solve our current problem. The use of UAVs will help the shortage of air traffic controllers but will likely bring on its own problems. So, what can we do now to resolve this problem? It is a critical skill in our modern age, with air travel being more prominent than ever, it is essential that the positions be filled because passengers cannot depend on so few people to keep them safe if they are suffering from chronic fatigue. Use of the current talent pool within the military, and offer them an age waiver. Similar to that of the former FAA Phoenix program, when they subtracted years of service from actual age and allowed retirees a one-time age extension to provide air traffic services. A program like this will expand the workforce and keep the funding available to meet hiring goals. Change and adaptability within the industry and culture is essential to solving the problem.