Senators urge funding to hire air traffic controllers

New employees must be trained before impending wave of retirements, they argue.

Seven senators are urging Congress to provide $14 million in fiscal 2005 funding for the Federal Aviation Administration to hire new air traffic controllers.

The bipartisan group, composed of members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that deals with the FAA's budget, recently sent a letter to the subcommittee's chairman, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and ranking member, Patty Murray, D-Wash., outlining concerns over a projected wave of retirements among controllers.

Subcommittee members requested that funding be provided as part of the fiscal 2005 Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies Appropriations bill.

The concern over air traffic controllers, which also was highlighted recently by the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, stems from the fact that nearly 9,000 controllers, hired in the four years after President Reagan's mass dismissal of striking controllers in 1981, are nearing retirement age. The FAA estimates that nearly half of the controller workforce could retire over the next nine years.

The already daunting task of hiring a large number of employees is complicated by the lengthy training required for controllers, which takes two to four years, the General Accounting Office has reported. The Transportation Department recently reported that the training can take as long as seven years.

In order to be prepared to replace retiring controllers, the FAA will have to pay thousands of trainees as well as soon-to-be retirees. Last year, the agency requested $14 million in fiscal 2004 funding to begin hiring new controllers. That request was denied, and the agency did not renew it for fiscal 2005.

"The FAA requested zero dollars for this," said Doug Church, media relations manager for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "So we took it upon ourselves to go to Congress and try to get their support. And we did." With the subcommittee markup of the Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies Appropriations bill coming up, Church said, the senators are emphasizing their belief that "the longer we wait, the worse the problem gets for the flying public."

In the letter, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Harry Reid, D-Nev., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Kit Bond, R-Mo., Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said they are "all too aware of the budget constraints facing this Congress," but argued that the looming controller shortage could inconvenience travelers and put them in danger.

DeWine "sees it as a safety issue," said Amanda Flaig, his spokeswoman. "With [the controllers] retiring at a rate faster than they're being hired… it will put a strain on the existing workforce."

Shelby believes the FAA must ensure that "the safest air traffic control system in the world" stays that way, said spokeswoman Virginia Davis.

Church said the letter shows that the proposal to add funding for new controllers has bipartisan support. While NATCA has earned Democratic backing for the funding in the past, he said, gaining Republican support is key to avoiding last year's fate.

"The fact that we have 3 Rs on this letter means that we've got the votes to make this happen," Church said. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens at the markup next week."