Rumors fly over FAA center's future

An effort by the Federal Aviation Administration to streamline air traffic controller training has sparked rumors that the FAA Academy may be leaving Oklahoma City.

FAA officials say the public - and the state - have no need to worry; the academy is not taking flight to another location.

The FAA redesign effort includes consolidating existing private sector contracts - such as the one the University of Oklahoma has with the FAA - into one contract with a single vendor.

It's that move that concerns Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who recently amended a funding bill to prevent the FAA from spending money on the training change, known as Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution.

Inhofe said ATCOTS will mean OU and other universities that have contracts to help the FAA train air traffic controllers will be shut out of contracts, resulting in the Oklahoma City academy ceasing its training.

"It will kill the academy," Inhofe said. The FAA is scheduled to award the ATCOTS contract in June.

OU has partnered with the FAA since 1981, hiring contracted trainers for the air traffic control program. The university received a $132 million contract this summer to continue that work. FAA officials said training in Oklahoma City is not contingent on OU being the winner of the contract in the future.

"The academy is definitely going to be alive and well and functioning in the next decade," said Gary R. Condley, the academy's superintendent.

Needs exceeds supply The need for more air traffic controllers alone is reason enough to ensure the academy continues training, he said. Over the next decade, over 70 percent of the current work force will become eligible to retire, said Marie Plummer, a representative for the ATCOTS program.

"In order to meet the challenges of this wave of retirements and the increasing demand for air travel, the FAA will hire and train more than 15,000 new air traffic controllers over the next 10 years," Plummer said.

She said ATCOTS will allow the FAA to reduce its training costs while also reducing the time it takes to train controllers.

Inhofe said he sees no need for change.

"It's one of those things that's not broken and it doesn't need to be fixed," Inhofe said. He said a change would result in students completing their air traffic training in other states instead of coming to Oklahoma City.

Air traffic control is a big part of the academy - about 2,000 air traffic controllers are trained at the FAA Academy at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center annually. But even without that training offered, the institution would still be needed in Oklahoma City, Condley said. He said the academy's role in the state is based on more than air traffic control.

Along with air traffic control, the academy, which teaches 2,000 classes a year, has several other divisions including the Technical Operations Division. This division trains engineers and technicians to keep FAA equipment running. The majority of the FAA's equipment - 99 percent - resides at the Oklahoma City academy.

Technical operations is larger than the air traffic control division, Condley said.

"Without the support of the technical group there would be no need for air traffic control because there would be no equipment to guide," Condley said.

Condley doesn't expect to see fewer prospective air traffic controllers coming through Oklahoma City anytime soon.

"I don't see any training stopping," he said.