As FAA seeks to add controllers, union pleads for contract

As Federal Aviation Administration officials issued a new plan to hire more air traffic controllers, a labor representative told lawmakers Thursday that the agency won't be able to maintain adequate staffing levels unless it negotiates a new contract with controllers.

"Without a concerted effort to attract experienced controllers and retain our current workforce, the ATC system will continue to lose controllers, and that will mean flight delays, runway incursions and increased chance of aviation disasters," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He testified at a hearing held by the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation.

"Though the FAA continually refers to a contract," he said, "the truth is that NATCA [members], including air traffic controllers, engineers, test pilots, nurses, lawyers and others, are working under imposed work and pay rules. This is not a contract."

The union and the agency were unable to reach agreement on pay and benefits issues last year, resulting in an impasse and the forced implementation of the agency's final proposal.

Forrey said resolving the differences and agreeing on a new contract would show controllers that they have an opportunity for better pay and better work rules, and thus discourage them from retiring as soon as they are eligible.

Lawmakers did not pledge action on the matter, but said they would follow up with several hearings on the reauthorization of the FAA, including several that will focus on the agency's budget and modernization. NATCA spokesman Doug Church said that one hearing will be devoted to the controller staffing issue.

"I want to be a part of the solution on this," said Sen. John Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "This has to happen … not just because of timing but because of its power to do damage to the nation."

The air traffic controller staffing crisis has long been a matter of debate. The problem can be traced back to 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 10,000 controllers and hired replacements. Nearly three-quarters of those will be eligible for retirement within the next eight years.

On Wednesday, the FAA released an updated plan to hire more than 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next decade. The plan calls for hiring nearly 1,400 new controllers this year, a net increase of 189 controllers over 2006 hiring levels.

It provides a range of authorized controller staffing numbers for each of the agency's 314 facilities across the country, in an attempt to allow more flexibility in matching the number of controllers with traffic volume and workload.

"Air traffic levels are very dynamic," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey in a statement on the new plan. "It is critical that we staff facilities based on actual and forecasted traffic demands. We are confident that the new controller hires will be able to meet the needs of the future."

Experts at the hearing argued that an attempt to rapidly modernize the nation's 1950s air traffic control system and implement a new system could help meet all of the demands of the 21st century.

But Church of NATCA argued that though new computer displays and better software have improved the efficiency of controllers, the introduction of new technologies would not replace the great demand for highly skilled controllers.

"Our bottom line is we haven't seen anything that would replace a controller," Church said. "The notion of moving off radar to a satellite system is a good idea, but you still need controllers monitoring these flights. We argue that staffing levels need to be increased as we move forward."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.