As the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continues to deal with staffing issues on a nearly daily basis, the agency says it has received 57,956 applications for this year's 1,500 open air traffic controller positions.
The median annual salary for air traffic controllers (ATCs) was $138,556 in 2021. All applicants must be under 30 years of age.
In a speech last week in Washington, D.C., the head of the ATC union says the FAA is not hiring fast enough.
"In 2011, there were over 11,750 Certified Professional Controllers and additional trainees yielding over 15,000 total controllers on board at the FAA," Rich Santa said at an industry conference last week. "By the beginning of 2022, there were more than 1,000 fewer fully certified controllers, and 1,500 fewer total controllers on board, a number that has declined for at least the past 11 years."
However, the FAA said that its hiring goals are in line with targets.
"The FAA annually hires new air traffic controllers, is on target to meet our hiring goal this year, and is reducing the backlog of training caused by COVID-19," the FAA said in a statement to ABC News.
Air traffic controllers manage plane traffic at airports across the country, and they are vital to the safety of plane passengers and the ability of airlines to maintain a timely schedule.
"Unfortunately, FAA staffing is not keeping up with attrition," Santa said. "With the introduction of new technology and new entrants into the [National Airspace System], we should have 1,000 more controllers, not 1,000 fewer than we had a decade ago."
The applicant number was first reported by Reuters. The applications come after the FAA's annual hiring push, which is now closed for the year.
During a summer plagued by delays and cancellations, many airlines pointed to air traffic control staffing levels as a reason for travel meltdowns. Airlines for America (A4A), an industry group representing major U.S. airlines, sent a letter to Congress in early June pointing the finger at the staffing of air traffic controllers.
"Specifically, air carriers are taking great care to reduce their summer flight schedules while also accelerating efforts to hire and train new employees to meet the strong resurgence in travel demand," the letter said. "The FAA must also work to ensure that the air traffic control system is capable of meeting demand."
However, the FAA pushed back on that narrative, saying that data points to delays and cancellations for other reasons.
"Airline data show that the vast majority of delays are not due to air traffic controller staffing," the FAA told ABC News. "Where demand has increased, the FAA is adding additional controllers."
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said that it is a priority for his agency to ensure that there is enough staffing to meet demand.
"We're also working to make sure that FAA personnel, the air traffic control side, is ready to support these flights," Buttigieg told ABC News in early July. "So when we have an area where there's a staffing issue, it's been happening in Florida where you've had huge demand and a lot of weather and other issues like military and even commercial space launches affecting the airspace."
Selected candidates from the 2022 hiring window will join the 14,000 air traffic controllers across the country. Successful candidates will then attend a training academy in Oklahoma City before being deployed to an air traffic control tower anywhere in the country.