updated 4/1/2011 4:27:08 PM ET 2011-04-01T20:27:08

A government report says more than a fifth of air traffic controllers hired by the Federal Aviation Administration in recent years washed out before finishing their training.

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The Department of Transportation's inspector general says in a report posted online Friday that the FAA has been underestimating the number of new hires who didn't finish their training.

Story: FAA suspends second air traffic controller in one week

Using a different methodology, the inspector general said 22 percent of new controllers who should have completed their training last year didn't. In 2009, 21 percent failed to complete their training, and in 2008 it was 31 percent.

FAA had previously estimated a 9 percent attrition rate for new controllers in 2009.

Story: Wake up! Sleeping tower operator spurs FAA policy shift

The agency is struggling to hire 11,000 controllers by 2019 to make up for a wave of retirements.

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Video: New generation takes control of airways

  1. Closed captioning of: New generation takes control of airways

    >>> air traffic controllers are in the news this week after that scare caused by a sleeping supervisor at reagan national airport early wednesday morning. the faa said today it's changing procedures and reviewing staffing in the wake of that incident. it's put a spotlight on a changing workforce as nearly half the veteran controllers in the system are reaching retirement age. now there's a new generation taking over . here's nbc's tom costello.

    >> reporter: it's the daily choreography of pilots, planes and passengers, a scene repeated at 273 airports across the country every day. 35,000 flights, 1.7 million passengers. but to get here, you've got to start here.

    >> will extend downwind number 2 .

    >> reporter: at the air traffic control academy in oklahoma city .

    >> cheyenne alpha zero.

    >> reporter: where the faa is pushing through a huge class of new controllers.

    >> 17 romeo, radar contact.

    >> reporter: it was the summer of 1981 when president reagan fired more than 11,000 union or patco controllers who went on strike.

    >> they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

    >> reporter: then hired replacement controllers to take over. now 30 years after the patco strike , those replacement controllers are retiring in large numbers, and a new wave of controllers is taking over in both control towers and at radar screens. today training involves sophisticated simulators that can lay out airport runways and traffic patterns in perfect gps detail.

    >> this runway here is runway 31.

    >> reporter: faa chief randy babbitt said no longer to controllers to have wait with real-life experience with congestion, snow or fog.

    >> every problem that we think a controller might face, we can set up and run the scenario.

    >> reporter: and near disasters too.

    >> academy tower, hold short.

    >> reporter: arlene perez is training to move from a radar room to the huntsville tower.

    >> you just need to be able to think on the fly and make decisions real quick.

    >> reporter: the academy takes up to 18 weeks, then months or years of on-the-job training.

    >> here you have to keep your head on pivot at all times. you've got to constantly be moving.

    >> reporter: and the faa is now training a thousand controllers every year, as a new generation takes control of the nation's skies. tom costello, nbc news, oklahoma city .


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