Struggle between FAA and controllers continues to boil

WASHINGTON. D.C. — The struggle between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association continues to boil as experienced controllers are retiring in greater numbers and faster than FAA expected.

According to the FAA, 828 controllers retired in the 12 months ending Sept. 30. NATCA says there are additional controllers who have announced their intentions to retire before Sept. 30 but have not yet shown up in the FAA’s statistics.

The present confrontation started last Labor Day when the administration imposed a contract on the controllers after they and the FAA reached a deadlock on negotiations. This impasse comes at a time when many of the controllers, hired in the early 1980s after members of the predecessor union were fired during a strike, are eligible for retirement.

NATCA and FAA continue to spar over whether the new contract is working. FAA insists air traffic control is going along well with trainees coming in, while NATCA claims there is a shortage of experienced controllers and the facilities are inadequate and understaffed, requiring controllers to work overtime, causing a safety factor. One thing is sure: Retirees are being replaced by less experienced and lower-paid controllers.

According to NATCA’s Doug Church, the FAA is at an 11-year low in the number of fully trained, experienced controllers. Staffing at JFK tower in New York, for example, is down to 25 controllers, a 32% drop from 2001.

According to NATCA, the problem is not only a shortage of controllers, but the necessity to have experienced controllers supervise trainees in their positions, limiting the number of positions to be staffed or causing overtime requirements. At the Chicago TRACON, 11 of the 17 trainees cannot work any position without being supervised by one of the center’s fully trained controllers. At the Las Vegas TRACON, eight of the 15 trainees must be directly supervised.

Testifying before a Congressional subcommittee, Patrick Forrey, NATCA president, said the FAA waited at least three years too long to start hiring new controllers, knowing that retirement age was coming up for many. He declared the agency should have hired 1,000 new controllers in 2004 to prepare for the retirements, but instead hired only 13.

Forrey also told lawmakers, who held the hearing to explore the record flight delays this summer, that even a fully staffed controller force will not eliminate delays. Scheduling by the airlines during peak hours at busy airports contributes to delays, he said. “”Without more runways, taxiways, ramps and gates, it won’t matter what we do in the airspace,”" he said.

According to the Associated Press, this past summer the FAA considered offering a cash bonus of one-fourth year’s salary to top rated controllers who would delay retirement for two years. The proposal did not fit the needs of the FAA at the time, a spokesman told the AP, “”but in the future some retention proposal could come up again.”"

Is the controller issue causing troubles for pilots? Apparently it is not noticeable. A friend who is a captain with a major airline and regularly talks with other pilots flying in different parts of the United States and abroad tells me pilots are not currently finding any problems.

However, as safety is the most important aspect of being a general aviation pilot, it is wise to heed that familiar advice: Y’all be careful out there.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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