WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration (search) announced a plan Tuesday to hire 12,500 new air traffic controllers and let some existing workers stay on the job longer than their mandatory retirement age to offset a tidal wave of looming retirements.
The plan outlined by FAA Administrator Marion Blakey (search) also calls for speeding up training to get controllers on the job faster and reducing the workforce at airports with less air traffic.
The genesis for the moves can be traced to 1981, when President Reagan (search) fired more than 10,000 controllers and hired replacements. Nearly three-quarters of those workers will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years.
"This is potentially an urgent problem and a safety issue, not having enough qualified controllers in three to five years," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. and ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee.
The plan includes 435 new controllers next year for whom Congress has already budgeted. In 2006, 1,249 more will be added, and varying amounts will be hired in subsequent years through 2014. When hiring is completed, the FAA will have about 16,200 controllers, about 1,500 more than now, to accommodate an expected increase in air traffic.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, applauded the plan but said the FAA should have tried to solve the problem sooner.
"It needs to be implemented as soon as possible because the workforce continues to age," Mica said.
Controllers' salaries and benefits account for a third of the $6.2 billion air traffic control budget, according to Russell Chew, FAA's chief operating officer.
How the FAA will pay for the new wave of controllers that it has to train while others are still on the job is unclear. Blakey said she could not estimate the price tag for the new controllers, partly because the existing contract expires next year and the cost of a new agreement won't be known until it's negotiated.
With more people than ever traveling by air, airlines support adding controllers to ensure the planes running on schedule. Delays are very costly for the airlines.
But there also is concern that if the FAA can't get Congress to approve the money needed for the new controllers it will seek to raise taxes on the airlines.
Much of the FAA's revenue comes from a passenger ticket tax pegged at 7.5 percent of fares. Cheaper tickets offered by discount airlines have caused the FAA's dedicated revenues to fall 8 percent in the last four years.
During the current fiscal year, the FAA had to take $470 million from a fund to replace aging equipment and use it to pay for air traffic control. Still, Blakey is confident the money needed for the controllers "will be there from Congress."
John Carr, president of the air traffic controllers union, was skeptical lawmakers will approve the funding. He predicted the FAA will be forced to put off equipment upgrades and airport expansion and reduce the number of hours that some smaller airports operate.
"We need to tell the flying public to bring a good book to the airport, because they're going to be there for a while," Carr said.
The FAA acknowledged that possibility. "Inadequate staffing levels will result in air traffic control system delays," the report outlining the plan said.
Mica said hiring new controllers will actually lower costs because they start at about $45,000 a year, far less than the $161,000 average annual salary for the entire controller workforce.
Blakey said the FAA will also save money by doing a better job screening people to see if they have the aptitude to be air traffic controllers, speeding training and managing the work force more efficiently.
In the past as many as 43 percent of applicants didn't make it through the initial 9-week screening program. A computer-based exam has proven accurate in predicting who will be capable controllers, reducing the failure rate to 5 percent, Blakey said.
The FAA also wants to reduce the average three-to-five year training period to two to three years. Blakey said that can be done by using simulators to augment classroom and on-the-job training.
She also said the agency will better match staff with traffic, something it hasn't done well in the past. The work force will be reduced at airports that have seen declines in air traffic, abuse of sick leave will be targeted and controllers will have a chance to work part time or split shifts.
"Exceptional" controllers will be allowed to work up to five years past the mandatory retirement age of 56.
Carr said he's skeptical of the FAA's ability to reduce training time. And he said split shifts are "ludicrous, dangerous and unsafe."