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Clearer skies ahead? Central Florida lab trying to become nation’s second ATC training site

DAYTONA BEACH , Fla. — Alejandro Jaramillo glanced up at the radar screen overhead, scanning the dots and lines as he thought about his next command.

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To his right, Ander Turueno Garcia was busy jotting a note on a virtual pad in front of him. He looked up as a simulated plane trundled down its taxiway, seemingly below his station.

“Runway 16 departure?” Jaramillo asked, glancing over to his partner.

Turueno Garcia answered almost instantly.

“Runway 16 departure approved,” he said.

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Jaramillo and Turueno Garcia are both rising seniors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University training to become Air Traffic Control operators. Both cited a passion for aviation as reasons for their interest in the high-stress, high-demand career.

Demand for new air traffic controllers is causing Embry-Riddle faculty to try something that, in the United States, hasn’t been done by anyone other than the FAA.

Train them.

Addressing a need

The United States needs thousands of air traffic controllers, a shortage brought on by the sharp rise in travel following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, National Transportation Safety Board leaders told a Senate committee that the industry was showing signs of strain brought on by routine mandatory overtime shifts, including a series of close calls at airports across the country.

More than three quarters of “critical” facilities nationwide are understaffed, a Department of Transportation office report said last June.

The FAA currently trains candidates at its academy in Oklahoma City through a 16-week program. Even running double shifts, the academy only has the capacity to graduate 1,800 controllers per year.

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In April, the FAA allowed universities to apply to become partners and train students on-site, bypassing the typically required program.

It was an opportunity Embry-Riddle professor Michael McCormick, who had a decades-long career in aviation before coming to the university, was prepared to jump on.

“As the FAA has updated their technology or software or the hardware or other simulation scenarios, we have updated ours so we can maintain the state-of-the-art that the FAA issues,” Dr. McCormick explained. “It enables them to go beyond the 1800 controllers.”

During the summer lull on campus, FAA leaders will visit McCormick’s lab and inspect all aspects of his program. If the simulators and classwork pass their checklist, McCormick will be able to graduate hundreds of students annually directly into the nation’s ATC sectors and facilities.

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He expects to get the green light in time for the fall semester to begin, with the first graduates emerging from Daytona Beach in December. The FAA has already budgeted for 2,000 new controllers to enter his facilities next year in anticipation of the program, he said.

“I’m passionate about air traffic control, and I love aviation,” McCormick explained. “So, when there was a problem to be solved in the industry, I’d like to be part of the solution.”

For passengers, this would mean safer skies and ground operations, as well as fewer delays.

For the students, this means cutting out years of waiting to see if an Academy spot opens up, plus additional time for background checks and other paperwork concerns.

“It’s definitely a milestone in cutting time in training,” Turueno Garcia said. “We’re training on the real environment… the FAA needs a lot of controllers right now.”

Jaramillo said he hopes to land a placement in either his hometown of Dallas or his adopted home of Central Florida, either at the Daytona Beach airport or at Orlando International.

“It’s a challenging airspace between the Space Coast and there’s a lot of satellite airports that are a lot of general aviation traffic,” he said, remembering a tour he once took of OIA’s tower. “Their space was incredible to watch them work, and I was like, if this if there’s a facility I had to choose, this would be it.”

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