University to turn out air-traffic controllers; As current force gets set to retire, college recruiting and training take on importance

A potential shortage of air-traffic controllers in only a few years is prompting the federal government to lock its radar on college campuses as an increasingly important training ground.

Lewis University on Tuesday joined the ranks of almost two dozen U.S. schools that offer a major in air-traffic control as part of a college degree.

Lewis, in southwest suburban Romeoville, is the only Illinois college participating in the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative.

Students learn that it is a tough profession, marked by high stress levels, bad work hours, little glory and the fear never far from a controller's thoughts that one mistake could kill a lot of people.

But there are also rewards, starting with something that many college graduates cannot count on -- immediate job openings.

About 90 percent of the nearly 15,000 controllers in the U.S., many of whom got their start in the military, are expected to retire over the next decade. Some 828 veteran controllers retired in fiscal 2007, and the FAA expects retirements to increase every year through 2012.

Even a novice controller can earn a six-figure income after five years and still retire with a good pension as a relatively young person. Under federal law, controllers cannot work beyond age 56.

Lewis, a small Catholic university that has offered an aviation curriculum for about 75 years, will introduce air-traffic control classes in the fall 2008 semester, officials said.

The announcement on Tuesday prompted some Lewis aviation students -- already working toward degrees in fields such as commercial piloting, aircraft maintenance and airport management -- to learn more about the air-traffic opportunity during a news conference held between classes.

"My lifetime goal is to own my own private airline company. Managing an airport is definitely an option along the way," said Andre Williams, 21, of Chicago, a senior at Lewis majoring in aviation administration.

Williams said learning about air-traffic control would be a great advantage and "maybe a career to fall back on."

Martin Stadnicki, 22, a senior studying to become a commercial pilot, said he is fascinated by how air-traffic controllers choreograph the movement of planes at busy airports like O'Hare International. But Stadnicki's first love is flying, he said.

"My goal is to become a professional pilot, hopefully for a major airline or," he said with a smile, "Andre's airline."

Lewis recently received approval from the FAA to participate in the college training program, which supplements the FAA's recruitment and training of controllers.

In fiscal 2007, the FAA hired 1,815 new controllers, and 800 of them were from colleges participating in the program, said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro. The rest came from the military or applied directly to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City.

The courses at Lewis will be taught at the White Aviation Center, on campus and near Lewis University Airport.

About 50 to 100 students are expected to enroll in the new major in the fall, said Bill Brogan, chairman of aviation and transportation studies at Lewis.

Lewis' participation is welcomed because the demand for experienced, full-performance controllers is outpacing the FAA's ability to recruit and train applicants, officials said.

Twenty-three colleges and universities are accredited to teach air-traffic control, which requires at least two years of coursework and additional training at the FAA Academy before the students can be hired as controllers, when additional training is needed to become a full-performance controller.

The median annual salary for a controller hired in 2007 is almost $50,000 a year, increasing to about $94,000 by the end of the fifth year, the FAA said.

But the stress that goes along with that paycheck requires a special temperament, a mind that works in 3-D and reflexes that would make a video-game wizard envious.

Part of the attraction of the Lewis program is the potential for students from the Chicago area to work at FAA facilities in the region.

In earlier years, controllers generally started their careers at small airports or radar facilities handling relatively lighter traffic levels than at the top-tier air-traffic centers in areas such as Atlanta and Chicago, which are home to the two busiest U.S. airports, respectively.

Graduates of the Lewis program can look forward to being hired at the FAA's radar facility in Elgin that handles planes approaching and departing Chicago-area airports; at the FAA's Chicago Center in Aurora, which directs high-altitude traffic in parts of the Midwest; or at any of the numerous satellite airports in the suburbs, officials said.

As they gain experience, controllers could later step up to O'Hare or Midway Airport.

The FAA's challenge to balance the number of veteran controllers and controllers-in-training is getting more difficult due to the wave of retirements. Meanwhile, controllers for Midwest airspace are directing record numbers of flights each year, the FAA said.

Accompanying that increase in flight volume is a rise in serious incidents in which controller mistakes have led to violations of the required minimum spacing between planes, causing dangerous situations.

Several recent near-misses have occurred, including a close call this month in which a controller error caused one airliner to descend into the path of another bound for O'Hare. The two planes came within seconds of a midair collision, the FAA said.

jhilkevitch@tribune.com


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