“Drastic steps” are needed to properly staff Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s (KAUS) control tower as the facility is reaching its breaking point, an internal air traffic control memo said, according to a report.
The memo, sent to regional air traffic control representatives and obtained by local Austin news affiliate KXAN, outlines severe ATC staffing issues as the airport is unable to keep pace with the congested airspace.
The news comes as airport officials expect a record-breaking summer travel season. The airport has already experienced five of its top 10 busiest days in history this year alone, it recently reported. Adding to operational pressures, KAUS expects to see more than 30,000 departing passengers a day.
According to the local report, the memo urges the FAA to raise the staffing standard guidelines for KAUS—noting that the facility is at a “critical point.”
While the FAA Air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan mentions target staffing standards for KAUS is 51 employees, the facility currently sits at 39.
Additionally, a chart outlined in the memo over a six-week period from April and May of this year shows that only 30 percent of shifts had the proper number of staff. The insufficiencies mean employees are required to work overtime, including six-day workweeks, and pull double duty—working both operational and oversight positions.
“It’s not good for us controllers to be continuously overworked at an airport that is only getting busier, while not getting the help we need,” an unidentified air traffic control employee told the local news station.
In early February, a runway incursion occurred at the airport when two commercial jets—one on takeoff, one on landing—were operating on the same runway. The incident is currently under investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB)
Preliminary reports indicate the two aircraft involved—a FedEx Boeing 767 and a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737—narrowly averted disaster after coming within 100 feet of colliding with each other.
Safety issues and ATC challenges extend beyond Austin. A June 21 watchdog report revealed the FAA “lacks a plan” to address staffing shortages—noting that the agency has made “limited efforts” to ensure adequate controller staffing at critical control facilities. The report highlighted 77 percent of critical facilities were staffed below the FAA’s 85 percent threshold, specifically mentioning New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) staffed at 54 percent and Miami Tower staffed at 66 percent.
According to KXAN, the memo also noted that union representatives asked for staffing help five years ago, but the pandemic put a hold on progress. Representatives made a second request when travel numbers reached pre-pandemic levels in 2021, but it’s not been fulfilled, it said.
However, the FAA says it is taking steps to tackle the issues. The agency stressed its goal is to “ensure that it has the flexibility to match the number of controllers at each facility with traffic volume and workload.” In its air traffic controller workforce plan, the agency stated it has hired more than 5,200 new air traffic controllers over the past five years. The FAA also states that it anticipates it will hire 1,500 controllers in 2023, and 1,800 in 2024.