FAA says it must hire, train air traffic controllers before retirement wave

The Federal Aviation Administration must hire new employees far in advance of an impending retirement wave, agency officials and other witnesses testified Tuesday.

In the next seven years, the FAA faces a major personnel crisis as those hired in the wake of former President Ronald Reagan's 1981 purge of 12,000 air traffic controllers near retirement.

The FAA estimates that nearly half of the controller workforce could retire before fiscal year 2012. Legislators on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation believe the estimate to be extremely conservative because it is based on the retirement of 24 percent of workers in their first year of eligibility.

During a hearing before the subcommittee on Tuesday, lawmakers said they had more than enough anecdotal evidence to believe that air traffic controllers are overworked, underpaid, stressed and ready to retire as soon as they are eligible.

"Since 1981, this has been like a freight train coming down the tracks," one lawmaker told FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. "It's not a problem of your creation, but it is a problem dumped in your lap."

Witnesses and legislators focused on the problem of years-long training for new employees in relation to the large number of retirees expected in the next decade. For new hires, the certification process, which includes academic and on-the-job training, takes an average of two to four years, according to testimony from the General Accounting Office. Alexis Stefani, the principal assistant inspector general for the Transportation Department, said it can take up to seven years.

This makes it crucial that the agency abandon its one-for-one hiring practice, in which an employee is hired after or just before the retirement of another, Blakey said. The agency now replaces retirees with trainees while monitoring the balance of "developmentals" and certified controllers in any one facility. The guideline is that no more than 15 percent of controllers be developmentals, she said.

In the face of pressure from the subcommittee, Blakey reminded legislators that part of the reason she is struggling to address the problem is that Congress refused FAA's budget request for additional positions. She repeatedly told the subcommittee that she cannot add employees because there is no money available to pay them. Instead, she must try to cut down training time where possible and cut expenses from other areas to pay for additional controllers. This is a precarious situation, she noted, since public safety is involved.

The FAA is working on a detailed plan for dealing with the crisis, which will be released in December. The report is in response to a subcommittee request contained in the FAA Reauthorization Act passed in December 2003.

Blakey provided the subcommittee with preliminary information from the report, which she said will stress the need to "focus on training, ensure appropriate distribution of developmental controllers throughout facilities, and make greater use of simulation in training." Using simulation could reduce the time and cost of training without causing a safety hazard, she said.

A shortage in controllers has been foreseen for some time yet has not been adequately addressed, lawmakers and witnesses said. Budgetary, logistical and cultural barriers have stood in the way of a solution.

"Whether or not we address the problem and prevent our aviation infrastructure from collapsing under its own weight is a choice," said Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "My members will continue to do everything possible to keep our collective heads above water, but it is Congress and the administration that can send us a lifeboat."

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 GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • 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 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.


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