Air controller shortage looms, House told

Traffic centers not ready for wave of retirements, inspector general says

March 18, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The number of air traffic controllers who retire each year will nearly quadruple soon, but the Federal Aviation Administration is ill-prepared to replace them because the agency has little idea when and where they will be needed, the inspector general of the Transportation Department testified on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Of the 15,400 air traffic controllers, about 7,100 will retire or quit in the next nine years, the inspector general, Kenneth M. Mead, said. In contrast, the agency replaced about 2,100 in the past eight years.

The FAA administrator, Marion Blakey, said she was facing "a tsunami wave at some point."

Most controllers now at work were hired in 1982 as replacements for those fired by President Ronald Reagan for going on strike, and they are approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56. Many were also brought in from the military and have enough years of federal service to be eligible to retire.

Mead, testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said each air traffic office seemed to have a different way of counting how many new controllers it would need. One center counted only mandatory retirements, assuming that controllers would stay as long as they could, he said; another accounted for attrition and transfers, but not retirements.

"I cannot today responsibly tell you what the budget number ought to be," Mead said.

The need for controllers was reduced somewhat by the falloff in air traffic after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but Blakey testified yesterday that traffic should return to pre-Sept. 11 levels by 2006.

The controllers union has been arguing for months that various air traffic offices are badly understaffed. Among the worst are Andrews Air Force Base, authorized for 16, but with 11 fully trained controllers and two trainees, the union said.

It also identified Newark Liberty International Airport, in New Jersey, with 40 positions but only 30 certified controllers and four trainees, and Philadelphia International Airport, with 109 positions, 67 trained controllers and 22 trainees.

Trainees are allowed to do some jobs unsupervised, but one complication is that training new controllers requires old controllers, which is a problem during personnel shortages.

John S. Carr, president of the union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said yesterday that another problem was that the FAA had delayed or eliminated several new technologies meant to improve capacity.

Blakey said one possible solution was to allow controllers to work beyond age 56. But Carr said that this was not a good idea because the stress of working in busy air traffic jobs "fries you like a fritter."

In addition, the agency faces growing budget problems. It is mostly financed by the Aviation Trust Fund, which in turn gets income from ticket taxes. But the price of tickets is depressed, pushing down revenues. Also, airlines are switching to smaller planes, which carry fewer people but cost the FAA just as much to supervise.

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