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...

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.

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