RELEASE: Ahead of Holiday Travel, Gottheimer Sounds Alarm on Air Traffic Controller Shortage

Results in Increased Delays and Long-Term Safety Issues. Staffing at Only 54% at Newark, LaGuardia, JFK. Fighting for Bipartisan Legislation to Fund FAA and Boost Hiring and Training of Air Traffic Controllers.

Dec 19, 2023
Press

Above: Gottheimer at Newark Liberty International Airport Air Traffic Control Tower.

NEWARK, NJ — Today, December 19, 2023, during the busiest travel time of the year, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) toured the control tower and stood with an air traffic controller at Newark Liberty International Airport to sound the alarm on the shortage of air traffic controllers, the impact it’s having on flight schedules, and the current threat in Congress to block critical Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investments needed to help fix the problem.

Gottheimer is fighting back against far-right extremists to pass legislation and make the necessary investments in the FAA. Our airports need a long-term bipartisan deal with predictable funding to hire the maximum number of air traffic controllers and continue to make the necessary investments in long-term safety and to prevent delays.

To reduce delays and boost long-term safety:

  • Today, Gottheimer flagged for the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Commerce leadership a bipartisan letter he helped send earlier this month demanding that any FAA funding bill we pass include hiring the maximum number of air traffic controllers.
  • Gottheimer led legislation that passed out of the House to require a GAO study of flight delays at Tri-State Area airports in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. This legislation helps ensure that appropriate plans can be implemented by the FAA and Department of Transportation.

Air Traffic Controller Shortage:

  • We’re on track to gain fewer than 200 controllers in the next decade. 
  • According to the National Air Traffic Control Center Association President Rich Santa, there are currently 1,200 fewer fully certified controllers today than ten years ago. In that time, air traffic nationwide is up more than 32 percent.
  • The situation is so dire that 77 percent of critical facilities are staffed below the Agency’s 85 percent threshold.
    • At towers for Newark, JFK, and La Guardia, staffing is at just 54 percent — more than 30 percent below the minimum.

“Jersey families who save their hard-earned dollars for trips should not have to face repeated flight delays and costly cancellations, and that’s especially true during the holidays. We have to support the men and women air traffic controllers keeping us safe. The bottom line: we simply can’t afford to let far-right extremists or political games get in the way of on-time flights and safe travel,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “The situation is so dire that at control towers for Newark, JFK, and La Guardia, staffing is at just 54 percent — more than 30 percent below the minimum.

Gottheimer continued, “We need to hire and train more air traffic controllers ASAP. That’s the only way to get more planes in the air safely and stop the delays. To get that done, we need to get a bipartisan deal done to fund the FAA now — no more delays, no more government shutdowns, no more extremists playing political games with the safety of the skies. We can’t keep rolling the dice on the long-term safety of air travel. Patchwork solutions will not solve our problems.”

Video of the announcement can be found here.

Gottheimer was joined by local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at Newark Airport James Lovett.

Below: Gottheimer at Newark International Airport.

Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good morning. We’re here today at Newark Liberty International Airport, during the busiest travel weeks of the year, to sound the alarm on the shortage of air traffic controllers, the impact it’s having on flight schedules, and the current threat in Congress to block critical FAA federal dollars needed to help fix the problem.  

Last month, over Thanksgiving, experts predicted “an all-time high” of 30 million travelers. Now, heading into Christmas and New Year, the numbers will be even higher. Experts predict that we will be a record breaking 7.5 million U.S. passengers flying between December 23 and New Year’s Day — a five percent increase from 2022 alone. We simply can’t afford to kick the can down the road on filling far too many open air traffic controller positions.

I actually just got back from touring the control tower here at Newark, where I saw first-hand the operation at work and heard directly from air traffic controllers. What’s clear to me is that we have the best men and women in the business up there, watching the skies, keeping air traffic moving safely, and protecting our lives. We must get their backs.  

Earlier this year, on just a single day, nearly 30 percent of flights were canceled and another 30 percent were delayed at this airport. That means folks miss seeing their family or miss that business trip. It’s something I hear about from my constituents all of the time. These delays just can’t become the norm. Jersey families who save their hard-earned dollars for trips should not have to face repeated flight delays and costly cancellations, and that’s especially true during the holidays.

While it’s not the only reason for delays, according to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a huge part of the problem is the 3,000-person egregious air traffic controller shortage. In the summer of 2022, more than 40,000 flights from New York area airports alone were delayed because of controller staffing. It’s not the air traffic controllers’ fault. They’re doing everything they can with the resources they have. We simply need more FAA resources to hire and train new controllers.

Here’s how we got here. Under normal times, it can take more than three years to train a single controller. Then, during the pandemic, training pauses significantly increased that amount of time. Now, we’re still playing catch-up. On top of that, veteran controllers are leaving the FAA in significant numbers. The result is a serious shortage of air traffic controllers at towers across the country, including at critical facilities like here in Newark.

We’re on track to gain fewer than 200 controllers in the next decade. According to the National Air Traffic Control Center Association President Rich Santa, there are currently 1,200 fewer fully certified controllers today than ten years ago. In that time, air traffic nationwide is up more than 32 percent. So, more people are flying across our country with fewer air traffic controllers in the towers.

The situation is so dire that 77 percent of critical facilities are staffed below the Agency’s 85-percent threshold. At towers for Newark, JFK, and La Guardia, staffing is at just 54 percent — more than 30 percent below the minimum. This air traffic controller shortage poses a serious long-term safety issue and results in increased flight delays. If you don’t have the staff, then you can’t put as many planes up in the air.

Air traffic controllers don’t cut corners. If they can’t handle more planes because of staffing, then they just can’t allow more to fly — it would be unsafe. But keeping up is still a huge stress on them and it forces huge sacrifices.

At many facilities, controllers are working mandatory overtime and six-day work weeks to fill the gaps.

If the existing shortage wasn’t bad enough, instead of fixing it, funding the FAA, and properly investing in more air traffic controllers, you have extremists in Congress standing in the way.

That’s right. If far-right extremists get their way, necessary investments in the FAA will be stalled, causing even more delays in training the air traffic controllers our airports so desperately need.

And it gets worse. Many of the towers our controllers spend six days a week in are literally falling apart. They don’t have air or heat, or are full of leaks. Here at Newark Airport, they are in the middle of projects to replace the tower’s roof and get their air conditioning and boiler fixed. If the FAA isn’t funded by Congress all of these projects will stop. Pipes could burst and the roof could fall in. This is no way to run an airport.

Then, there’s the looming shutdown. If we don’t get a budget agreement in January, training centers will shut down and trainees will be sent home, setting us back even further. 

It’s simple, no funding means no training and no hiring. Even a shutdown that lasts a month or two can have serious ripple effects — delaying the training of new air traffic controllers by more than 16 months. Any pause of the FAA’s programs – even for just a few hours or days – would interrupt progress on critical initiatives to advance safety, efficiency, innovation, and airport infrastructure. Not to mention, a lapse in funding would furlough 4,000 FAA employees— making traveling even worse. 

So, what’s the solution? 

We need to hire and train more air traffic controllers ASAP. That’s the only way to get more planes in the air safely and stop the delays.   To get that done, we need to get a bipartisan deal done to fund the FAA now — no more delays, no more government shutdowns, no more extremists playing political games with the safety of the skies. We can’t keep rolling the dice on the long-term safety of air travel. Patchwork solutions will not solve our problems. The FAA and our air traffic controllers need predictable funding.  

This bipartisan legislation must also make it possible for the FAA to hire as many air traffic controllers as possible. 

That’s why, earlier today, I once again flagged for the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Commerce leadership a bipartisan letter we sent earlier this month demanding that any FAA funding bill we pass include hiring the maximum number of air traffic controllers. This means that for the next five years, we’d have about 1,800 individuals per year training at the FAA Air Traffic Control Academy in Oklahoma City. That will significantly help solve our problem. 

To be clear, with divided government, and the Senate still at work on even approving the existence of the FAA come January, a bipartisan proposal is the only way to stop the far-right from holding this critical legislation hostage.

But Speaker Johnson needs to decide if he wants to work with people who are reasonable and focused on governing — including moderate Democrats and Republicans like those in the Problem Solvers which I Co-Chair. Or does he want to let extremists play political games with our airport operations? I think the answer should be clear. Especially given the countless families traveling this holiday season. 

Beyond air traffic controllers, we also need to know the specific causes of other flight delays, so that appropriate plans can be put in place by the FAA and Department of Transportation. I’m proud that just a few weeks ago, my legislation passed the House requiring the GAO to study all causes of flight delays in the Tri-State Region. 

The bottom line: we simply can’t afford to let far-right extremists or political games get in the way of on-time flights and safe travel, especially during the holidays. There is nothing partisan about this issue. We can get this done. Commonsense can prevail. 

Here in the greatest country in the world, I know that if we work together — Democrats and Republicans — and put country over party and common sense over extremism, our best days will always be ahead of us.

God bless you, God bless our troops, and may God continue to bless and watch over the United States of America.

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