- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday said it will hire 12,500 air traffic controllers over the next 10 years, a period during which 11,000 controllers are expected to retire.

The air traffic controllers union said the plan comes too late and won’t boost the work force quickly enough.

The FAA plans to modify hiring and training practices to help speed up the addition of new controllers. The agency also said it will change a rule forcing controllers to retire at age 56 by letting older workers apply for one-year exemptions so they can continue working.

“We will continue to operate the world’s safest aviation system by being smarter and more efficient about our staffing needs,” FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey said.

The FAA will hire 435 controllers next year, after hiring just 13 in fiscal 2004. In subsequent years, the agency will hire more than 1,000 controllers annually, according to the plan submitted to Congress yesterday.

By the end of its 10-year blueprint, the FAA will have about 16,100 controllers. The agency employs 14,816 controllers now. The additional controllers will help address a continued increase in the number of planes navigating the skies.

Ms. Blakey said the agency can use better technology to reduce the time it takes to train controllers from three to five years to no more than three years. Specifically, the FAA will rely more heavily on high-tech simulators.

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said he doesn’t think the FAA should shorten training so drastically.

“They want to say, ‘let’s reduce training time,’ but you can’t count on reducing training time. There is a lot of on-the-job training that takes place in the field and in towers and trying to reduce that is impossible. It’s a function of on-the-job instruction, not the reading of a book,” Mr. Carr said.

The FAA also hopes to address the looming shortage by letting workers stay beyond the mandatory retirement age of 56 for up to five years, provided they meet certain criteria. But the agency isn’t counting on a huge number of controllers working beyond 56.

“We think it’s going to give us some marginal relief,” Ms. Blakey said.

Some of the most acute worker shortages are at Los Angeles Center, a facility that monitors planes flying above 15,000 feet throughout Southern California, and Philadelphia Tower, which monitors planes coming into Philadelphia International Airport and planes in the area flying above 15,000 feet.

Los Angeles Center is authorized to have 309 controllers but has only 219, said Doug Church, spokesman for the air traffic controllers union. At Philadelphia Tower 109 controllers are authorized but only 85 are at the facility.

The FAA’s report outlining its hiring plan said the anticipated wave of retirements can be traced to 1981, when 10,438 striking controllers did not return to work and were fired by President Reagan.

The agency hired 8,705 controllers in 1982 and 1983 to replace them, and now they are reaching retirement age at the same time.

The FAA report doesn’t address how the agency will pay the cost of additional controllers, but it did acknowledge that revenue from the Aviation Trust Fund, which comes from a tax on ticket sales, is falling as competition among carriers reduces fares.

“There is one glaring omission in this report — funding. I am pleased the administration is attempting to address the looming shortage in air traffic controllers, but they’re missing the most important point. Hiring and training 12,500 new controllers will be challenging and expensive,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s aviation subcommittee.

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