Natca blasts controller hiring plan

 - July 7, 2008, 6:55 AM

The issue of controller staffing is intensifying the long-running debate between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca). During a House aviation subcommittee hearing last month, Hank Krakowski, COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, and Natca president Pat Forrey debated the FAA’s current plan for controller hiring. Transportation Department inspector general Calvin Scovel III and Dr. Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were among the other participants.

Krakowski testified that his agency “staffs to traffic” based on traffic volume and controller workload. Forrey maintained that the FAA is “staffing to budget.”

The controllers union reached some sympathetic ears on the subcommittee. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said that the agency’s handling of the air traffic controller workforce has led to an accelerated retirement rate for veteran controllers, leaving too many inexperienced controllers
to fill the void. He believes the situation has contributed to an increased rate of runway incursions this year, with greater implications for aviation safety if the problem is not addressed.

Of particular concern is the low morale among controllers, which he said stems from the FAA’s unilaterally imposing work rules on the controller workforce in 2006 instead of reaching agreement on a new contract. Combined with the increased use of overtime to meet staffing needs, this has prompted many veteran controllers to retire as soon as they become eligible, he explained.

The House of Representatives included a provision in H.R.2881, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007, that would employ binding arbitration in future contract negotiations between the FAA and Natca to prevent the unilateral imposition of work rules. While the House passed that bill last September, FAA reauthorization remains stalled in the Senate, which did not include that provision in its FAA reauthorization bill.

In the early 1980s, the FAA hired more than 12,000 controllers, to replace the striking controllers that President Reagan fired. Those controllers are now becoming eligible to retire. There were 583 controller retirements in 2006, 828 in 2007 and the FAA projects that between 2008 and 2017, some 7,068 of the current controller workforce will retire. In addition, the FAA estimates that an additional 5,316 certified professional controllers will leave for other reasons that include promotion, reassignment, resignation and termination.

According to the GAO, the FAA will need to hire and train nearly 17,000 controllers to replace more than 15,000 current controllers over the next 10 years, most of whom will be retiring. This mass hiring effort will spool up as the FAA begins to implement the next generation air transportation system (NextGen), which will integrate new technologies and procedures into air traffic operations and fundamentally change the role of air traffic controllers from controlling individual aircraft to managing air traffic flow.

The agency will need to train experienced controllers to use the new technologies at the same time that it hires and trains new controllers to operate both the current and the new technologies. Another complication facing the agency is the difficulty in developing training for NextGen systems that have not yet been defined.

Fatigue Concerns Raised

Scovel told the congressional panel that his office, at the request of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), is reviewing factors that could affect controller fatigue. The efforts are focused on the Chicago O’Hare tower, the Chicago Tracon and the Chicago en route center. But the Office of Inspector General might also review other locations, as well as the FAA’s nationwide efforts.

“So far, in our discussions with managers, union representatives and staff, we have identified several factors that could contribute to controller fatigue,” said Scovel. “These include scheduling practices with minimal time between shifts, conducting [on-the-job training], working six-day weeks and working an operational position for extended periods of time.” The office is determining the extent to which these factors are occurring and how the FAA is addressing them.

“We are reaching a crisis point in regard to controller staffing,” added Costello. “Controller fatigue is a serious problem and morale is at an all-time low. These are dedicated professionals, but we cannot expect new hires to replace the experienced controllers who are leaving.” He called on the FAA to redouble its efforts to conclude a satisfactory labor contract with the controllers.