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Losing control of the skies?

Trainees can't keep up with faster-than-expected retirement among air traffic controllers.

Associated Press
Published October 25, 2007


Retirements of veteran air traffic controllers have surged beyond government expectations since the Bush administration imposed a contract on their union on Labor Day last year, new data shows.

While air travelers experience record delays, the Federal Aviation Administration regularly proclaims all is well with its work force.

But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association equally often warns that controllers are overworked in major centers it considers undermanned and could pose a safety risk.

One thing is certain: A veteran force of controllers - most hired in the early 1980s after President Reagan fired 11,000 members of a predecessor controllers union - is being replaced by lower-paid, less experienced young controllers. That long-expected transformation is occurring faster than the government anticipated.

The Associated Press learned the FAA recently considered offering a cash bonus of 25 percent of one year's pay to top-rated veteran controllers who delay retirement two years. Laura Brown of the FAA denied that the proposal, drafted in August and since rejected, was spawned by any difficulty staffing control centers.

"It didn't fit our needs right now because hiring is going so well," she said. "In the future, some retention proposal could come up again."

A total of 828 controllers retired in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, the FAA said. That's 28.8 percent more than the 643 retirements the agency predicted at the beginning of fiscal 2007, though it upped its estimate twice during the year, to 700 and then 800.

The union said it found an additional 24 who confirmed their retirements before Sept. 30 but have not shown up in agency retirement records. Union spokesman Doug Church said 16 of the year's retirees had reached 56, the mandatory retirement age.

In addition, during September 2006 - the month before fiscal 2007 - 97 controllers retired, compared with the 39 the FAA predicted, according to the Transportation Department inspector general, who said the jump "was a result of the breakdown in contract talks."

That month began with the FAA ending an impasse in negotiations by imposing a contract with new work rules, including staffing cuts and a dress code, and a 30 percent cut in the pay of starting controllers. The agency tossed out staffing levels negotiated in the 1998 contract, and targeted all 314 control facilities for staff cuts, ranging from 9 to 26 percent.

"The surge in retirements just shows that the FAA's imposed work rules and pay system have exacerbated an already critical staffing issue," union president Patrick Forrey said. "Now we have controllers retiring with five and six years of eligible service left because they can't stand the environment any more, the draconian work rules, six-day workweeks and forced overtime. They're concerned about making a big mistake due to the fatigue."

The FAA says it has long known fiscal 2007 would be the peak year for controllers hired in the early 1980s to become eligible for retirement. So it hired 1,815 controllers during the year bringing the total to 18,874 now. The FAA said that total exceeded the year's target, but conceded it includes more than 3,000 controllers in training who cannot handle all work stations at their facility.

"We're getting a lot of enthusiastic recruits," said acting Administrator Bobby Sturgell. "Controller hiring, training and staffing is a major priority and we are on track to meet future traffic needs."

The FAA's Brown said estimating retirements is tricky, because controllers aren't forced to retire until 56 but are eligible at any age if they have 25 years service. She said the largest group retires once they have put in 25 years.

Brown denied the work force transformation compromised safety and noted that fatal accident rates in commercial and private aviation are at record lows. She said staffing needed to be revised to reflect airline bankruptcies, mergers and flight pattern changes after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fast facts

Too many trainees

Three air traffic control facilities where the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers says a high ratio of trainees to fully certified controllers has delayed on-the-job training and left trainees unable to help carry the workload:

- At Chicago's terminal radar approach control (TRACON), 11 of 17 trainees can't work any position without being supervised by one of the center's 75 fully trained controllers.

- At the Las Vegas TRACON, eight of 15 trainees can't work any position without being supervised by one of the 25 active fully certified controllers.

- At the Miami en route center, which guides planes between airports, 62 of 102 trainees cannot work traffic without supervision by one of the 197 fully certified controllers.

Union spokesman Doug Church said Miami is so short-staffed that trainees have had to wait months to get training and nine have resigned this year.

[Last modified October 25, 2007, 00:50:27]

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