FAA announces new plan for ATC staffing and training

 - January 30, 2007, 8:09 AM

Hoping to stave off a shortage of air traffic controllers caused by an expected wave of retirements, the FAA intends to hire 12,500 new controllers during the next 10 years and improve training so that candidates can become fully certified professional controllers more quickly.

With more than 11,000 controllers expected to leave the agency between this year and 2014, the FAA said the planned level of hiring reflects the lead-time required for training and will maintain the appropriate ratio between developmental and fully certified air traffic controllers. The plan to fill an additional 1,500 positions takes into account increases in air traffic volume, an expected 5-percent training failure rate and the still higher-than-normal retirement rates expected beyond 2014.

The seeds for the impending retirements were sown more than two decades ago when President Ronald Reagan fired 10,438 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (Patco) following a walkout on Aug. 3, 1981. In the aftermath, the FAA hired 5,643 controllers in 1982 and 3,062 the next year.

Between 1982 and 1991, the agency hired an average of 2,655 controllers per year.
That set the stage for a large portion of the FAA’s 15,000-controller work force to reach retirement age at roughly the same time. The FAA said that about 73 percent of controllers are likely to retire by 2014.

“Coupled with normal attrition rates, it’s clear that the agency’s recent hiring policy for controllers–one retirement, one hire–will not be adequate to meet the challenge because of the time to train a new recruit and the fact that the system can handle only so many on-the-job trainees at any one time,” the FAA said. “We will monitor our hiring to ensure an appropriate ratio between fully certified controllers and those in training.”

The FAA announced its new controller hiring and training program just before Christmas, but the Department of Transportation’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) have been warning the agency for several years that a staffing shortage was brewing. NATCA called the staffing plan “a Wal-Mart solution in a Tiffany’s box.” The labor union claimed the agency is making promises about training and staffing that simply won’t hold up under close scrutiny.

“For example, the FAA has been saying that it wants to provide more tower simulators but didn’t fight for funding in Congress to make this happen,” said NATCA president John Carr. “Wishing and hoping are no substitutes for action,” he added.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee, also found fault with the FAA’s 10-year controller work force plan and blamed “the Republican Congress” and President Bush for exacerbating the problem.
“Hiring and training 12,500 new controllers will be challenging and expensive,” DeFazio said. “It is critical that they support the staffing increases outlined in this plan during the appropriations process so we may avoid the pending crisis.”

According to NATCA, while the FAA was drafting the long-awaited plan, the agency lost 500 controllers but hired only 13. “The FAA acknowledges that it takes three years to train a replacement, but the FAA’s report promises no substantial hiring for two years, which means relief is more than five years away,” Carr said.

To stem the immediate hemorrhaging of controllers, the FAA proposes allowing exceptional, medically fit controllers to continue to work beyond the current mandatory retirement age of 56. That could be extended each year to age 61 if the controller passes an assessment.

Revamping Training Procedures

The more than 15,000 controllers currently on the payroll staff 315 facilities across the country–from small towers to en route centers. Filling the job of a controller who retires today requires many steps that must have begun several years in advance. In the past, the training process for controllers has taken between three and five years.

But the FAA believes that improvements in classroom training, increased use of high-technology simulators and more efficient on-the-job training can compress the process to two or three years. The agency’s ATC academy can train approximately 2,000 controllers per year, and the FAA said that some 5,000 applications for controller positions were pending at the time it issued the report. The agency also hires controllers from the Defense Department, the contract-tower program and several colleges.

The FAA hopes to increase hiring efficiency with an improved screening process that reduces the previous nine-week process to an eight-hour test. Previously, the screening cost the FAA about $10,000 per candidate, and the training academy reported a 57-percent pass rate. Today it costs the agency about $800 per candidate to administer the test.

The new screening test, combined with the academy’s multipath training, has reduced the washout rate for academy training to less than 5 percent, which saves the agency money and encourages new recruits.

In addition, the FAA said that staffing efficiencies, productivity improvements and better management will enable it to reduce staffing requirements by at least 10 percent over the 10-year period from previous projections, reducing the number of controller positions by 1,700.

The starting salary for a controller is $60,000 a year and the average controller salary is $118,000 a year. Later this year, the FAA will open a new round of contract talks with NATCA, but both the DOT inspector general and the GAO have warned the FAA that it cannot sustain continued salary increases for controllers. About 75 percent of the FAA’s operating budget goes to payroll and benefits.