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Air traffic controllers warn of staffing dangers

Safety at the world's busiest airport is in question because the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to replace soon-to-be retiring workers, air traffic controllers said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Safety at the world's busiest airport is in question because the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to replace soon-to-be retiring workers, air traffic controllers said.

The problem, said controllers who oversee air traffic around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is that thousands of U.S. air traffic controllers hired decades ago when President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic workers on strike in 1981 now are nearing the mandatory retirement age of 56.

"In Atlanta, there are fewer and fewer controllers guiding more and more planes," said William "Dub" Pearman, the Atlanta chapter president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is the controllers' union. "The FAA is dragging their feet in having adequate replacements."

Too few controllers and a boom in air travel means "a smaller margin of safety," said Pearman, who spoke at a news conference Thursday outside a hotel next to the Atlanta airport as Delta Air Lines jets took off two at a time.

Union officials from other cities suffering similar staffing problems — Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Fort Worth, Texas — held similar news conferences on Wednesday as part of a national campaign to educate the public.

FAA officials said Thursday they have been addressing the staffing concerns and are replacing retiring workers. The agency noted that it has been in contract negotiations with controllers, who insisted their safety campaign is unrelated to the contract talks. Both groups declined to provide details of the negotiations.

"I think it's important to point out, yes, indeed we are in contract negotiations and staffing levels are a part of that," said FAA spokesman Paul Turk. "We are in the safest period in aviation history right now and — thanks to the actions of our very skilled and dedicated controllers, managers and supervisors — we continue to maintain that system and continue to maintain the margin of safety."

Union officials say the staffing problems will lead to future travel delays when airplanes are forced to wait on the ground while stretched-thin controllers have their hands full juggling planes already in the sky. Delays at an airport as large as Atlanta can jam up airport operations in the U.S. and abroad, said John Carr, association president.

"Atlanta is one of the critical hubs — problems like Atlanta tend to be a pebble in a pond and they ripple through the system," Carr said. "When you dial it down a notch at the world's busiest airport, it is going to have an effect even in places where we have adequate staffing."

The Atlanta controllers say half of the 36 controllers at the airport's tower will be eligible to retire in 2008. Next year, 15 of the 73 controllers at an air traffic center in Peachtree City, Ga., that tracks planes within 40 miles of the airport will be able to retire and 60 more controllers are planning to retire by December 2007 from a third center in Hampton, Ga., that tracks planes between airports, union officials said.

Nationally, about 10,000 controllers will reach retirement age in the next 10 years, the union said. FAA officials say the current staffing is adequate and 12,500 controllers will be hired over the next nine years.

"We have sufficient numbers of controllers and supervisors and managers to enable us to maintain the margin of safety," Turk said. "We recognize we're going to have to replace a lot of people over the next 10 years, that's why the staffing plan is in place."