50 SKY SHADES - World aviation news

Opportune Solution for Air Traffic Controllers shortage

Date: 11 Jan 2024 05:53 (UTC)
Author:

There is a worldwide shortage of Air Traffic Controllers; roughly 4,000 in Europe and the USA alone. A small island in the Dutch Caribbean could contribute to part of a solution because of its exceptional air space and air traffic situation. There is a desire to establish an international Air Traffic Control (ATC) Academy which provides a situation that may not be available elsewhere. St.Maarten’s Princess Juliana international airport has one tower for Air Space/Traffic Control of six airports of the surrounding islands! Its unique complexities make St.Maarten ATC ideal for training purposes.     

In the United States air traffic control is understaffed by about 3,000 positions. In spring 2023, the FAA asked airlines to dial back flights this summer in the New York metropolitan area, where a key radar facility is only 54 percent staffed. Airlines flying their planned summer schedules would cause a spike in delays due to the shortage. The FAA was targeting 1,500 new entry-level air traffic controllers that year. They had planned 3,300 hires in the next two years mostly to replace those who are retiring. The FAA found that at current hiring and training levels, the agency would only have roughly 200 more air traffic controllers in 2023 than it does today. 

In Europe, EUROCONTROL reported that in 2022, ATC capacity and staffing delays in Europe alone delivered 7.54 million minutes of delay, costing airlines over €800 million, and inconveniencing many travelers. In July 2023, the Financial Times reported that Europe has a shortfall of between 700 and 1,000 air traffic controllers, largely due to lay-offs and recruitment freezes during the coronavirus pandemic.

There is a realistic opportunity to establish an international ATC Academy on St.Maarten. Of course, it depends on finding financing and support for such an institute. The Juliana Air Traffic Services (JATS) has a staff of 32 professionals of which 24 air licensed Air Traffic Controllers. Each of them is in possession of Procedural Aerodrome (Tower) and Approach Ratings and approximately half of them also hold a Surveillance (Radar) rating.  The ATC tower has an airport simulator for training purposes.  Believe it or not, it could even go as far as simulating snowfall at the airport which may only happen if climate change will lead us into an “Ice Age” in this tropical region. One never knows.

Air traffic controllers at the airport Juliana Air Traffic Services need to be on their toes. They are responsible for airspace around Dutch and French St.Maarten/St.Martin airports which coexist on the island. It also supervises the five smaller airports on the islands of Anguilla, Saba, Saint Barth, Sint Eustatius and Grand-Case in French St. Martin. Together the aerodromes falls under three different civil aviation authorities: the Dutch, French and the UK. Further complexity is triggered since St.Maarten FIR (Flight Information Region) is situated in between the San Juan, Puerto Rico FIR north overhead and to the west, and in the Piarco Trinidad FIR to the east and south.

This all makes for incredibly complicated air traffic management. JATS can usually get aircraft entering its airspace on the ground within 12 minutes. However, in the peak season this can take up to 45 minutes, as there may be 15-20 aircraft inbound, adding to possible ground congestion at the airport. There just is a limited size of airspace and other airfields in close proximity. Aircraft may be flying less than 5 minutes before transiting to another airspace because the airspace is constitutionally split. While neighboring Saba and St Eustatius are governed by the Netherlands, Anguilla falls under the British CAA, and average distance from SXM before hitting another jurisdiction is between three and five nautical miles. For the traffic between French St.Martin and the French island St.Barth a special corridor is created. There also is a huge mix of traffic to be reckoned with; fast moving aircraft like a big Airbus and Boeing airliners alongside small planes like Cessna Caravans and Twin Otters.

The plans for an ATC Academy are not something that fell recently new out of the blue sky. They existed already in 2016. Included were the commencement of the first basic ATC courses. Fact finding missions to Orlando, FL and Madrid Spain resulted in acquiring the MaxSim Airport ATC simulator. It received the necessary ATO (Approved Training Organization) certification which allows the Academy to train personnel in all authorized courses that are contained within the ATO. But then came Hurricane Cat. 5 Irma followed by the Pandemic. No need to say more. 

There is an opportunity to discuss the ATC Academy matter in June this year on location in St.Maarten with international stakeholders in the industry which may lead to an actual initiative to start implementing the Academy. Yet, also other airport and air transportation matters could be discussed.  The annual CARIBAVIAevent which is scheduled for June 13-15 would be the right communication platform for the subject and include ATC demonstrations. However, the event is currently in need of a host and sponsors to find realization.   

For St.Maarten, there would be another interesting opportunity. Related to the establishment of an ATC Academy is the prospect for developing sustainable education tourism. After all, the participants of the training semesters and workshops need accommodations to stay overnight, and the need to buy their groceries, etc. It is not season depending. This kind of tourism brings diversification may seem like a relatively small yet lucrative new tourism segment that also benefits the local economy. 

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