Controller Retirements Could Squeeze U.S. ATC

 - May 6, 2008, 11:37 AM

The FAA could face a shortage of air traffic controllers in the next decade unless it makes more adequate plans to replace as many as 11,000 current controllers who could leave the agency by 2012, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has warned Congress. And that attrition could affect the safety of the ATC system and increase air traffic delays.

According to the GAO, the FAA will likely need to hire increasing numbers of controllers over the decade to meet increasing traffic demands and to address the anticipated attrition of experienced controllers.

By 2010 the FAA expects it will need about 2,000 more controllers than are presently employed just to handle future increases in air traffic. But in that same timeframe it expects that about 7,000 controller specialists, nearly 50 percent of those currently employed, will leave.

The largest part of this exodus will come from retirements, and the FAA estimates that it will experience retirements of controller specialists at a level three times higher than that experienced from 1996 through 2000. But the GAO found that even more controllers might soon leave their current positions than the FAA has estimated.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, and Rep. William Lipinsky, the ranking Democratic member of the subcommittee, asked the GAO to prepare the report. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

According to the GAO report, because of the significant hiring in the early 1980s to replace the Professional Air Traffic Control Organization strikers fired by President Reagan after the 1981 Patco strike, large numbers are approaching the mandatory retirement age of 56 at about the same time.

“I am concerned about the future of the ATC system,” Mica said. “Administrator [Jane] Garvey testified [last July] that the FAA planned to hire 1,000 controllers within a year, but as of the last April it had only hired 314. The FAA needs to do better.”

The GAO said the FAA has not developed a comprehensive workforce strategy to address its need for thousands of new air traffic controllers, thus increasing the risk that it will not have enough qualified controllers when necessary to meet air traffic demands. GAO identified several challenges in the FAA’s approach to hiring, recruiting and training new candidates, and to retaining existing ones, which the investigative arm said are not fully addressed in the FAA’s plans.

“The FAA’s process of generally hiring replacements only after a current controller leaves does not adequately take into consideration the time it takes to train a replacement to become a fully certified controller–up to five years,” the GAO said. “In addition, the FAA’s proposal to rely more heavily on candidates who have no previous experience may result in additional challenges.”

Because it takes a certain type of person to become an effective controller and a washout rate near 50 percent, the FAA developed a screening test to help select better potential candidates. But the GAO noted that recent changes have been made to the test to allow additional candidates to pass it, and as a result its effectiveness in identifying successful candidates has yet to be determined.

The FAA currently has about 20,000 employees involved in air traffic control, of which about 15,000 actually sit at the screens and control air traffic. The others are controller supervisors, managers or support staff.

The GAO found that the rate of controller attrition is expected to be 150- to 200 percent higher over the next 10 years than it was over the previous five years, and many potential retirees currently hold key positions as supervisors, work in some of the FAA’s busiest facilities or both. About 93 percent of current supervisors are eligible to retire by 2011, the GAO said.

“While I believe the aviation system will remain safe during this massive turnover, I’m extremely concerned that a shortage of experienced controllers will result in unnecessary airline delays and put further stress on remaining controllers,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “With more than 50 percent of our experienced controllers and 90 percent of the supervisors set to leave in the next decade, this issue must be immediately addressed by the FAA so that we don’t face major disruptions in passenger air travel.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), the union that represents FAA controllers, said the GAO report merely reinforces what it already knew–that air traffic controller staffing is reaching a desperate stage and is forecast to get worse.
“This report says it all,” said Natca president John Carr. “We’re going to lose one in every three controllers we have in the next five years, and the [FAA’s] plans are inadequate for making up for that shortfall.”

Natca and the FAA have a five-year agreement on staffing due to expire in September next year, but Carr noted, “In light of the GAO report, I think it’s prudent to sit down and negotiate staffing numbers now.”

The FAA generally agreed with the GAO findings, but stressed that it has been able to meet staffing goals over the past few years. Further, agency officials said that uncertainty surrounding the future, as well as labor contracts and budget constraints, limits its ability to plan for air traffic controllers to fiscal years 2002 through 2004.