Concerns mount over air traffic controller staffing levels

Concerns are mounting over a reported decrease in air traffic controller staffing levels at the Federal Aviation Administration, with the loss being attributed largely to a retirement wave.

FAA's Administrator's Fact Book indicates that controller staffing levels were 17,070 in fiscal 2004, but fell to 16,645 the following year and 16,596 for fiscal 2006.

But a spokeswoman for FAA said the fact book's results were wrong, and while there was a significant decrease in controllers between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2005 -- from 14,934 to 14,540 -- the agency hired new controllers in fiscal 2006, bringing the number up to 14,618.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association argued that regardless of the discrepancy in the figures, the number of controllers has still decreased in the last few years. The fact book's report is "the most definitive proof yet" that the agency cannot get ahead of the retirement wave, no matter how many controllers it claims to hire, the group said.

Controllers can retire before the mandatory age of 56 if they have either 25 years of service, or have reached age 50 with 20 years of service. Veteran controllers have been retiring at a rate of more than three per day since the start of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2006, NATCA reported.

The increase in FAA retirements can be traced back to 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 10,000 controllers and hired replacements. Nearly three-quarters of those replacements will be eligible for retirement within the next eight years.

FAA has acknowledged the retirement problem and said it has a plan in place to hire 1,100 controllers per year for the next 10 years to stay ahead of the retirement wave.

Additionally, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency had agreed with NATCA in a prior contract to establish a national staffing level. But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, air traffic, and consequently the need for more controllers, decreased significantly. When that contract expired in 2003, FAA did not agree to increase the number of controllers because air traffic operations had dropped, Brown said.

Brown said the agency implemented a contract in September 2006, which entailed looking at the levels of traffic as well as the number of controllers eligible for retirement at every facility. FAA then developed a staffing plan and determined when it will need to bring newly trained controllers into those facilities.

Meanwhile, though retirements are the leading cause of the decrease in staffing levels, controller ranks also have dwindled due to promotions, internal transfers, resignations, training failures, removal and death. Total losses over the next eight years are expected to be about 10,300, with 3,500 of those for reasons other than retirements, according to FAA data.

Mike Boyd, president and founder of aviation consulting firm the Boyd Group, blamed the agency for not holding itself accountable for the staffing shortage and for not immediately heading off the situation. "Controller problems and the need to replace the aviation system were problems we addressed a dozen years ago, and nothing has been done about it," he said.

In a Jan. 24 letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., criticized FAA's failure to address the controller staffing problem. The letter indicated that debate over the issue is likely to come up in this session of Congress.

"We are asking you to address this problem immediately, fully brief Congress and prepare for oversight hearings on this and similar matters in the event Congress decides to consider legislation on the issue," the lawmakers wrote.

The letter also denounced FAA for lowering controller incentive pay, which is designed to attract and retain controllers in areas with higher costs of living. FAA said it is willing to look at the issue and try to negotiate the incentive pay with controllers.

Lawmakers will most likely look at the staffing issue when they take up a measure to reauthorize FAA. The reauthorization plan is expected to be issued in March.

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