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FAA tackling N.Y. air traffic controller shortage. Here's how it's getting more eyes on the skies.

FAA starts new initiative to help ease New York air traffic controller shortage
FAA starts new initiative to help ease New York air traffic controller shortage 03:46

NEW YORK -- The summer travel season is expected to be the busiest ever, but it may be hampered by New York's major air traffic controller shortage.

Right now, nearly all FAA air traffic controllers must train at the Oklahoma City academy, no matter where they're from or where they'll work. However, only so many people can be trained there at once, so a new FAA initiative will soon allow colleges that already focus on aviation, like Vaughn College in Queens, to train hires on campus.  

The Queens school is helping increase the numbers of eyes watching our skies.

How the FAA initiative works

Kyle Ratkowski was working on a simulator, but is getting ready to do the real thing. The Federal Aviation Administration just hired the 2023 Vaughn graduate, and he'll soon start the agency's three-month air traffic controller training program in Oklahoma City.

"Just doing the training here in New York would be much easier and less stressful," Ratkowski said.

Like all controllers, they'll still have to complete additional training at the facility they're assigned to work at after their time at Vaughn.

"Same exact curriculum. We handed over the curriculum that we use at the academy. We gave it to the colleges," the FAA's Chris Wilbanks said.

"It absolutely should speed up things," Vaughn College instructor Steve Fanno said.

Fanno is a retired controller.

"I think it's just gonna open the door faster for a lot of new prospective students who eventually become employees," Fanno said.

Fanno worked at the Tri-State's facility for controllers, known as the N90 TRACON (short for Terminal Radar Approach Control), on Long Island, guiding approaching and departing planes. It is now staffed at about 58%.

An air traffic control tower is seen at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 11, 2023, in New York City.
An air traffic control tower is seen at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 11, 2023, in New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

CBS New York filed a public records request with the FAA and learned, in the last five years, 17 new hires assigned to that facility either failed, transferred to another facility, or left for another reason before they even completed their additional training.

That's more than double Atlanta's TRACON, where eight left and quadruple Southern California, where four trainees left.

Fanno said he hopes the plan can draw more FAA applicants who want to stay in New York for good.

"It's a very difficult facility to work in," Fanno said.

"Probably the most complicated, or one of the most complicated airspaces in the country. And dense and highly populated. A lot of airports close together, so you know that plays a factor in that," Wilbanks added.

N90 TRACON making progress but needs more applicants  

There is hope. Thanks to new hires, N90 has more controllers currently in training than any other TRACON. 

N90 is also one of the top three TRACONs for the total number of controllers who completed training in the last five years.

But it will have to keep getting more applicants -- and applicants who can finish training -- to meet its staffing needs.

"You're gonna have more and more delays, and more and more restrictions on airports, like we have in New York airports now." Fanno said, when asked what will happen if the FAA cannot address the shortage.

"The agency is looking at various different things that we can do to increase that success and be successful up in the N90 area," Wilbanks said.

The FAA hasn't said yet which schools will be in the new training program, but Wilbanks told CBS New York Investigates that Vaughn will be one of them.

Unfortunately for Ratkowski, the initiative likely won't be off the ground in time for his training.

The agency opened the application process for schools that want to join the program, known as the Enhanced Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative, in April, and it has not released a date for when it will launch.

"I could imagine it'd be much easier. I can't explain to you the number of people who I'll say I'm going to Oklahoma City and the say, 'Oh, Oklahoma, that sounds really far,'" Ratkowski said.

Adding to the complications is an FAA plan to move 17 controllers from that Long Island facility to Philadelphia. They'd still cover Newark's airspace and the FAA says the move will actually help staffing overall, but the controllers are fighting the plan, as are several New York lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

There have been a number of near-collisions over the past years. That's one reason training is so important, and the FAA also recently announced new rules requiring more rest between shifts for controllers, who are often overworked but play a crucial safety role.

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