By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday it had met its goal of hiring 1,500 air traffic controllers (ATC) for the year even as staffing challenges continue to impact travel and aviation near misses prompt safety concerns.
The FAA has about 2,600 controllers at various levels of training. The Transportation Department said in March it is seeking $117 million to hire another 1,800 next year, in addition to the 1,500 it planned to hire through Sept 30. More than 12,000 people applied earlier this year for the roles.
The FAA is also holding runway safety meetings at 90 airports after troubling close-call incidents and said on Wednesday it awarded $121 million to airports to reduce runway incursion risks including reconfiguring taxiways and installing new lighting systems.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FAA are investigating an Aug. 11 near collision between a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 and a Cessna business jet in San Diego. The NTSB is investigating seven runway incursion events since January, including the San Diego incident.
Citing ATC staffing issues, the FAA this month agreed to extend temporary cuts to minimum flight requirements at congested New York City-area airports and Washington National Airport through Oct. 28.
The Transportation Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) said in June critical ATC facilities face significant staffing challenges, warning of the risks posed to the continuity of air traffic operations.
The FAA said on Thursday it currently has 10,700 certified controllers, up slightly from 10,578 in 2022, according to the OIG report, which was virtually the same as in 2021 and down 10% from 2012.
The FAA closed its academy for six months in 2020 due to COVID-19 and paused on-the-job training at facilities for almost two years, the agency said.
Managers told auditors that ATC facilities are not adequately staffed and many do not have enough supervisors. At several facilities, controllers are working mandatory overtime and six-day work weeks to cover staff shortages, the report found. Of the FAA's total 13,300 controllers, 26% are trainees, the report said.
Last summer, there were 41,498 flights from New York airports where ATC staffing was a contributing factor in delays. The report found New York Terminal Radar Approach Control staffing was at 54% compared with optimal levels.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)