Image: Air traffic controllers
Paul M. Walsh
Controllers at the busy Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center at Oberlin, Ohio monitor their screens. NATCA, the U.S. controllers' union, says the system is now in crisis, with large-scale retirements of controllers and insufficient hiring of replacements by the FAA producing a situation whereby there are no longer enough experienced controllers to handle traffic safely in four of the busiest areas of the U.S. Controller fatigue is now a major issue, according to NATCA.
updated 1/30/2008 4:59:18 PM ET 2008-01-30T21:59:18

Higher-than-forecasted air traffic controller retirements and total controller attrition over the past few years have left the United States with the lowest number of fully trained and certified controllers since 1992, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

By the end of 2007 there were 11,250 fully qualified controllers working at the Federal Aviation Administration’s 314 facilities. In 2006, there were 11,706, and in 1992, 10,696. According to NATCA, since 2004 the FAA has significantly underestimated the number of controllers who will retire, and this has contributed to the current controller shortage.

Earlier this month, NATCA President Patrick Forrey said that remaining veteran controllers no longer can handle peak volumes in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California safely. Forrey indicated that a controller staffing emergency exists in the four locations, which are among the most congested in the country.

Controllers fatigued
“They are being asked to handle so much volume with so little rest and with fewer eyes and ears that they are fatigued, and when you are fatigued you make mistakes,” said the union leader.

The FAA’s chief operating officer, Hank Krakowski, acknowledged that staffing is “tight” at “a few facilities.” But he emphasized that “nothing in our data shows any increase of errors where staffing or fatigue have been contributory. We do not believe we are running an unsafe system.”

Krakowski said the FAA is aggressively hiring new controllers and is pleased with their skills and progress in training. New controllers can take up to three years to become fully certified for all tasks at busy facilities.

NATCA said in an Oct. 22, 2007 news release that while there were 3,618 controller trainees system-wide, approximately one-third of them were not certified on any position and could not work alone without a fully certified controller beside them. The association’s Web site states that only 40 trainees out of 1,800 controllers-in-training became fully qualified by the end of last year.

The union also says many FAA facilities have more trainees than resources available to train them, resulting in delays of up to 16 months before they begin to receive any real training. Because of the long wait to start training, some trainees have quit, according to NATCA.

NATCA claims that the contract imposed by the FAA in early September 2006 is a major factor causing controllers to retire as soon as they are eligible instead of remaining in the system. The contract included pay cuts, freezes, imposed work rules, and provided no benefits for trainees, including those with military controller experience. Mandatory retirement for controllers is typically six years or more after reaching retirement eligibility.

Controller retirement numbers high
According to the FAA, 828 controllers retired in 2007, 29 percent more than predicted. Data on the NATCA Web site show that controller attrition in FY 2007, which ended on Sept. 30, totaled 1,558 personnel. The number included 856 retirements, 201 resignations, 126 removals, 10 deaths, and 365 promotions to FAA supervisory positions.

The House passed a reauthorization bill late last year involving the FAA that would force new negotiations between the agency and controllers. The Senate has yet to vote on its version, which does not go quite as far. The Bush administration opposes reopening the contract.

“The air-traffic controller staffing crisis has industrywide consequences, including more and longer flight delays and an increased use of mandatory overtime that results in an exhausted and burned-out work force,” wrote Jim Hall in an Oct. 30, 2007 article in The Tennessean. Hall was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and is the managing partner of Hall & Associates LLC, a transportation safety and security consulting and government relations firm.

The second-largest reason for U.S. airline flight delays is a congested air traffic system, according to data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The data show that the total number of minutes of delay in 2007 was 23.3 million.

Meanwhile, air traffic in U.S. airspace continues to increase. According to the FAA, U.S. airlines transported 738.6 million passengers in 2005. The agency's latest forecast estimated the 2007 passenger total would be 780 million, a 4.6 percent increase over the previous year. The FAA forecast says “U.S. commercial aviation remains on track to carry one billion passengers by 2015.”

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