Staffing Shortage Impacts Air Traffic Controllers At Sacramento Executive Airport

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Every day, hundreds of planes take off and land at the Sacramento Executive Airport, but on Tuesday, no air traffic controllers showed up to work at the tower.

Pilots say these controllers’ primary role is to keep people in the air and on the ground safe, and now, some changes are being made when they aren’t at their post.

“It can be kind of scary and nerve-wracking,” said Ryan O’Neil, a student pilot.

Pilots typically get permission to take off and land from air traffic controllers inside the tower.

“There’s usually anywhere from 2-3 people that would be staffing the control tower,” said Scott Johnston, airport spokesperson.

But recently, no one’s been home.

“A staff shortage, that’s the problem,” Johnston said.

So what role do air traffic controllers have in keeping pilots safe?

“It kind of helps us inside the airspace just to make sure we have separation from other aircraft to make sure we’re not hitting anybody,” said pilot Justin Young.

All pilots are trained to operate at uncontrolled airports, but when the skies get congested with other planes, they sometimes have to make split-second decisions over the radio.

“We were both two miles out, so we had to negotiate, ‘You can go first and we’ll fly a little slower so you can get in there faster,’ ” O’Neil said.

“We’ve got intersecting runways here, for instance. I was just coming in to land, and there was somebody that was trying to take off one runway and I was trying to land on the other one,” Young said.

The executive airport also has three flight schools and some of their training is being impacted.

“Right now, they’ve shut down the pattern,” Young said. “So right now you’re not allowed to do touch and goes right here. We have to kind of fly out to a different airport before we can go ahead and do that.”

The airport contracts with a private company to provide qualified controllers and they say staffing shortages are a nationwide issue. But many pilots are now hoping their guides on the ground will soon return to the tower.

“It is nice having that other person looking out for you,” O’Neil said.

There are no commercial flights out of the executive airport, so no scheduled flights are impacted when controllers are absent.