FAA plans air traffic controller hiring surge

Federal Aviation Administration officials unveiled a plan Tuesday to replace three-quarters of the air traffic controller workforce by hiring 12,500 controllers during the next decade.

The hiring surge is designed to offset the effects of an anticipated wave of retirements. FAA officials have projected that 11,000 air traffic controllers will leave the agency by 2014. There are currently 15,000 active FAA controllers.

Agency officials plan to hire 1,500 more controllers than are departing to account for increased air traffic and a 5 percent failure rate in the training program.

The surge in retirements is linked to the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association strike, when thousands of workers walked off the job to protest pay rates, working hours and retirement benefits. President Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and the FAA hired replacement workers. Those employees are now nearing retirement age.

In 2014, when the hiring surge passes, FAA officials expect to have more than 16,000 air traffic controllers in the agency.

"That level of hiring reflects the required lead time for training and will maintain the appropriate ratio between developmental and fully certified controllers," the FAA said in a press release.

Officials also announced a plan to reduce the current three- to five-year training period for new controllers. Under the new system, controllers will be fully trained in two to three years. According to the agency, advanced simulators, improved classroom training and more efficient on-the-job preparation will reduce the required training time.

The FAA is also reviewing its staffing standards in an effort to streamline its workforce and improve efficiency. Some facilities that are fully staffed around-the-clock, for example, might have their numbers reduced during late-night hours.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association officials said the FAA plan vindicates their long-standing concerns about staffing levels, but does not go far enough to solve the impending personnel shortage.

"This staffing plan is a Wal-Mart solution in a Tiffany's box. It's gratifying that the FAA has joined us in stating that we need to hire thousands and thousands more controllers, but we remain concerned about the shortage that has already hit cities across the country," said NATCA President John Carr. "While drafting this long-awaited plan, the FAA lost over 500 controllers, but hired only 13."

The union said also that the agency's training plans will not become a reality without significant investment.

FAA officials do not yet have an estimate on how much funding will be required for the hiring surge and the subsequent training.

"There are a lot of variables, so no, I don't have a figure for how much this is going to cost," said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman.

On Tuesday, the FAA also formally proposed allowing some controllers to continue to serve beyond the mandatory retirement age of 56.

FAA officials said the adjustments will not compromise air traffic safety.

"We will continue to operate the world's safest aviation system by being smarter and more efficient about our staffing needs," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. "This plan is our blueprint to put the right number of controllers in the right place at the right time … The plan is good news for our controllers."

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