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Shortage of Air Traffic Controllers at Crisis Point, Union Says

WASHINGTON -- A chronic shortage of controllers has reached a crisis that will lead to widespread flight delays if left unchecked, officials for the union that represents air traffic controllers said Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration has failed to meet its hiring goals for controllers for five consecutive years, causing a sharp decline in the number of controllers at a time when air traffic is increasing, National Air Traffic Controllers Association officials said at a news conference.

The number of "certified professional controllers" — those who are no longer in training and can direct air traffic without assistance from a more experienced controller — has declined 10 percent from a peak of 11,573 in September 2012 to 10,859 as of Aug. 22 of this year, the union said.

Air traffic controller chronic fatigue raises concerns 0:56

Trish Gilbert, a union vice president, likened the situation to April 2013 when automatic, government-wide spending cuts imposed by Congress forced the furlough of 10 percent of the controller workforce. During the seven days the furlough was in place, 12,760 flights were delayed — about three times the normal number.

The disruptions were greatest at some of the nation's busiest airports. Amid complaints from disgruntled travelers, Congress passed an exception to the budget cuts for controllers.

Meanwhile, of the 10,859 certified controllers, 30 percent are currently eligible to retire, Gilbert said.

Image: traffic control tower
Air traffic controllers' work schedules often lead to chronic fatigue, making them less alert and endangering the safety of the national air traffic system, according to a study the government has kept secret for nearly four years. Gonzalo Fuentes / REUTERS

FAA officials didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.

The shortage has meant controllers at some of the nation's busiest air traffic facilities have been working six-day work weeks for years, union officials said. They said safety isn't at risk, but they also acknowledge controllers' work schedules are causing widespread chronic fatigue.

NASA warned the FAA four years ago that chronic controller fatigue was undermining safety and urged the agency to eliminate six-day work weeks as soon as possible.

FAA Study Shows Air Traffic Controllers Too Sleepy

Jim Marinitti, a union official who works at the Dallas approach control facility, one of the nation's busiest air traffic facilities, said controllers there have been routinely working six-day weeks since 2006.

The union's complaints are unusual because labor relations at the FAA have improved markedly during the Obama administration, and the controllers association rarely airs complaints publicly.

Gilbert blamed the situation on "bureaucratic inertia." She said FAA officials have long been aware of the problem and have been working to resolve it, but have simply been unable to overcome red tape and lack of communication, among other issues.