"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."