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."