Empty Towers

Angered by slower raises and tighter rules, air traffic controllers are retiring en masse.

Hired en bloc in the early 1980s after 11,000 air traffic controllers were fired for striking, the current contingent now is retiring rather than continue under a new pay scale and work rules imposed by Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey. Their departure is leaving FAA short on capability and expertise just as air traffic is increasing exponentially and a new generation of controllers desperately needs seasoned hands to guide them.

At first glance, last year's contract talks between FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association foundered on a disagreement over how much a financially strapped agency ought to pay a highly trained and already highly paid segment of its workforce. But when negotiations broke down and Blakey imposed her final contract proposal, a far more significant challenge emerged. The controllers might not have won a ratified contract, but their numbers gave them unexpected power.

Ironically, that power has its roots in the destruction of a controllers union more than two decades ago. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan banned from federal employment all members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who had gone on strike illegally. Over the next three years, FAA hired 9,000 controllers to replace them. The new employees progressed up the experience and salary ladders together, putting an unusually large proportion of the workforce at or near the top of the pay scale simultaneously. In the union's most recent contract, which ran from 1998 to 2003 and was extended to 2005, the value of pay and benefits rose more than 75 percent, according to FAA.

"It was a very rich contract," says Blakey. To cut costs, she sought to slow the rate of salary increases dramatically. When negotiations between the agency and NATCA deadlocked in April 2006, FAA was offering a 9.4 percent pay increase over five years. The union wanted 18 percent. After Blakey declared the negotiations at an impasse, she used the authority granted in the 1996 FAA reauthorization to impose her final proposal on the controllers without their agreement. In addition to slowing the rate of raises, the terms FAA required cut starting salaries from between $38,080 and $53,312 to $31,700 and eliminated incentive pay for controllers who move to more challenging facilities or take on supervisory duties. The agency also instituted new rules to restore managerial control, including a dress code and restrictions on entering and leaving air traffic control facilities. "We were able . . . to reassert our ability as managers, to assert management prerogatives," says former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

Many longtime controllers found the new regime bewildering and unsettling. Some staged protests against the new work rules, wearing outlandish clothes that were technically permitted under the dress code.

Others simply decided to retire as soon as they were eligible. Controllers can retire at age 50 with 20 years of service, or with 25 years of service at any age. "Controllers have had enough," says Doug Church, NATCA's director of communications. "The work rules are the last straw. Retirement letters are piling up like cordwood." NATCA believes retirements are clustered in facilities that can least afford the losses.

Mustering Out

"Our people are retiring at the busiest airports because that's the career path, it's the senior people there," says Ruth Marlin, a 17-year veteran and former executive vice president of NATCA. A Government Executive analysis of traffic and staffing statistics provided by FAA and NATCA confirms her assessment. There are three kinds of air traffic control facilities in the United States: Air route traffic control centers (known as en route centers) handle planes in the middle of their flights; air traffic control towers handle planes as they move on the ground at airports and give pilots directions as they take off and land; and terminal radar approach controls (TRACONs) handle planes as they move into and out of the general vicinity of airports after they take off and before they prepare to land.

At the 10 busiest en route centers in the country, 7 percent to 23 percent of controllers will be eligible to retire by the end of the fiscal year, as will 13 percent to 38 percent of controllers at the 10 busiest towers and 13 percent to 55 percent of controllers at the 10 busiest TRACONs.

Blakey disagrees that the contract she imposed has had any impact on controller retirements. "You've got this bell curve of people reaching a certain age and mustering out that none of us can change," she says. "It's not related to the contract; it's not related to anything."

Not so, according to David A. Dobbs, Transportation Department principal assistant inspector general. "During the first six months of fiscal 2007, FAA's projections were extremely close to the actual number of retirements that occurred," he wrote in a February report (AV-2007-032). "However, beginning in April 2006, actual retirements began exceeding FAA's projections when negotiations between the agency and NATCA over a new collective bargaining agreement reached an impasse. . . . By September, when the FAA began unilaterally implementing its own proposals . . . retirements were nearly three times higher than FAA had projected (97 actual retirements compared to 39 projected). . . . According to FAA and NATCA officials, the large jump in actual retirements was a result of the breakdown in contract talks."

Government Executive's analysis indicated that by the end of February, fiscal 2007 retirements at six of the 10 busiest en route centers, two of the 10 busiest towers and five of the 10 busiest TRACONs already were on pace to exceed fiscal 2006 rates. While data was not immediately available on how many retirement-eligible controllers at each facility would reach mandatory retirement age in fiscal year 2007 or how long those controllers had been eligible to retire, the IG report found that a quarter of controllers retire in their first year of eligibility and 87 percent retire within their first seven years of eligibility. The report also predicted that those rates could rise as FAA begins phasing out the incentive pay that controllers once received for working at more difficult facilities.

As retirements accelerate, so does the need to replace veteran controllers, a task made more difficult by reduced starting salaries, controllers contend. Pat Forrey, NATCA's president, told Congress in March that FAA has resorted to recruiting for controllers on social networking sites such as MySpace and message boards such as Craigslist. FAA counters that the starting salaries it offers can rise to $50,000 by the end of a controller's first year on the job and insists that recruiting has not fallen off considerably. But a June job listing posted by FAA offered up to $20,000 as a lump sum or in installments as a recruiting bonus to controller candidates with previous experience.

The number of controllers working for FAA rose 0.5 percent from fiscal 2005 to the end of fiscal 2006, according to the April edition of the FAA Administrator's Fact Book, but the size of the controller workforce has declined 5 percent since fiscal 2003, even though the number of airline trips in the United States increased 25 percent, from 588 million in 2003 to 740 million in 2006, and is predicted to top 1 billion in 2015.

Turning to Trainees

FAA told the IG that the air traffic control system could function with a workforce that was up to 35 percent trainees. Government Executive's review of traffic and staffing statistics found only one of the 10 busiest centers had a staff that was more than 30 percent trainees, though those numbers could increase dramatically by the end of the fiscal year depending on the number of veteran controllers who retire. "The increase in the percentage of developmental controllers is a concern because it means there will be fewer certified controllers within the workforce to control air traffic," according to the February IG report. "Air traffic managers and NATCA facility representatives we interviewed during this audit indicated that a staffing ratio of up to 25 percent of developmental controllers to certified professional controllers would still enable effective controller training."

Jim Allerdice, representative for Atlanta TRACON, says the facility was unable to attract more experienced controllers because the elimination of incentive pay meant that controllers would have to take a pay cut to come there even if the new facility is more challenging and handles a higher volume of traffic than their previous posts. Controllers still willing to come to Atlanta often can't because other facilities won't release them, saying they can't afford to lose them. Allerdice says trainees are unable to step into the roles filled by retiring veteran controllers. "They're nowhere even close. They have no clue as to what they've even got themselves into," he says. "The people we're getting have literally no experience, and it's going to take years for them to be of any use to us."

The IG found as many as six different methods for determining the minimum staff size for a given facility. FAA is completing a review of staffing standards, but it won't be finished until 2008. In March, FAA released what it considers acceptable staffing ranges for air traffic facilities across the country along with the actual numbers working at each facility. The agency did not indicate how many controllers in each location were trainees, and the staffing numbers FAA reported were current only as of the end of fiscal 2006. But an analysis of staffing numbers through February provided by NATCA suggests that FAA's totals included trainees at each facility. According to those figures, at two of the 10 busiest en-route centers, eight of the 10 busiest towers and six of the 10 busiest TRACONs, the number of certified controllers fell below the minimum set by FAA.

The consequences of understaffing could be as minor as delays-controllers can slow the pace of traffic to manageable levels when they are overworked, and through April 2007, the air traffic system has seen more delays than any year since the government began keeping statistics in 1995. But understaffing also can contribute to fatal accidents. A Transportation IG report released in March concluded that the fact that there was only one controller on duty in the tower at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 27, 2006, contributed to the crash of Comair Flight 1191, which killed 49 people. FAA has since taken steps to clarify staffing requirements at smaller facilities.

Such requirements mean nothing if FAA doesn't have enough controllers to meet them. The current wave of retirements likely will overwhelm the agency in the short term, and once staffing finally stabilizes, pressure will start to build on the system again as new controllers begin their climb toward retirement together. "We do have a structural anomaly with this workforce," Blakey says. "So, will we have that phenomenon again in 20-plus years? I think so."

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