FAA Exodus Sparks Concerns Over Fatigue
Mass Retirement of Air Traffic Controllers Leaves Staffing Level at Decade Low
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008; Page A09
The number of certified air traffic controllers is the lowest in more than a decade, raising concerns from members of Congress and outside analysts about the possibility of fatigue.
The potential problem stems from a long-anticipated exodus of experienced controllers -- the result of a bulge of workers hired after President Ronald Reagan fired striking controllers in 1981. FAA officials, who say there is no staffing shortage, expect more than 13,000 controllers to leave the workforce by 2016.
"This is going to get worse before it gets better," said Marty Lauth, a former FAA air traffic control supervisor who is now an assistant professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. "You are going to have less controllers to work airplanes, and less-experienced controllers are going to be put into the situation of handling a lot more airplanes than they have had to in the past."
There have been few outside studies of the issue, but government officials have been focusing more attention on staffing and fatigue. In December, the Government Accountability Office reported that at least 20 percent of controllers at 25 facilities, including towers at major airports, were working six-day weeks. The report said such heavy reliance on overtime "could cause fatigue." Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board added controller fatigue to its list of Most Wanted safety improvements.
The Transportation Department's inspector general is conducting several studies of controller staffing.
"Everyone recognizes that there is a problem," said Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee, which is expected to hold hearings on the matter.
The staffing debate is occurring in a charged atmosphere remaining from a contract fight between the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union and the FAA. The government imposed a work deal in 2006. The controllers' union regularly blasts FAA management in news releases and news conferences; the FAA does not hesitate to fire back.
The controllers' union president, Patrick Forrey, called the staffing situation a "crisis."
The FAA says there is no staffing problem and that officials are working hard to recruit controllers. The agency hired 1,800 controllers out of 25,000 applicants last fiscal year.
"Overall, the numbers are good," said Hank Krakowski, the agency's chief operating officer.
However, Krakowski conceded there were staffing issues at some facilities.
"We have some places that are under a little bit of strain," Krakowski acknowledged, pointing to facilities that control air traffic in the Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas areas, which are some of the nation's busiest.
Krakowski said the FAA recently began offering large cash bonuses -- some more than $20,000 -- to forestall retirements and entice controllers to transfer to other facilities.
Members of Congress say the FAA should have thought about taking such measures before there was a staffing shortfall. "The problem is getting the qualified and experienced hands on deck where they need to be," said John L. Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, who added that he thinks the FAA has done a solid job of hiring.
Many analysts and members of Congress from both parties say they are concerned about the declining number of certified controllers and growing number of trainees.
Trainees cannot work all positions in a control center without direct supervision. Depending on their training, however, there are dozens of air traffic control jobs they can perform without direct oversight, according to FAA officials, who say many trainees are near full certification.
Of the 14,857 controllers on staff as of late December, 11,026 were certified controllers, or 74 percent of the workforce, an FAA official said. The FAA had 2,776 trainees at facilities across the nation, agency officials said.
In 2000, 12,576 controllers were fully certified out of 15,153 controllers, about 83 percent of the workforce, FAA records show. Just under 1,000 were trainees, records show.
The number of certified controllers as of December was at its lowest level since at least 1993, according to FAA records.
Outside experts say the FAA hasn't helped its cause much because it has consistently underestimated the number of controllers leaving the agency.
In fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30, 1,559 controllers left their jobs through retirement, resignations, firings or moved to supervisory positions within the agency. A year earlier, the FAA had projected the number would be 1,007. The estimate of anticipated retirements was also off: The FAA underestimated retirements by 185 controllers, or by about 30 percent, FAA records show.
"The staffing situation is as serious as I have seen it in nearly two decades," said Ken Mead, a former inspector general of the Transportation Department.
Because they do not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments under the imposed contract, controllers say they have little financial incentive to stay until the mandatory retirement age of 56. Their pensions are calculated based on their highest three years of salary.
Just under 30 percent of retiring controllers are leaving in their first year of eligibility, according to the FAA. Two years earlier, 23 percent retired at such a time, the FAA said. Only 15 controllers waited until age 56 last fiscal year, the FAA said.
"Once I am eligible to retire, why wouldn't I leave to go work somewhere else?" Forrey said.
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