Air controllers: New hires would ease delaysFAA disputes union, calls staffing levels OK

Thousands of new air traffic controllers are needed to alleviate flight congestion delays in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region and nationwide, officials representing the controllers union said yesterday.

Controllers want the Federal Aviation Administration to increase the current level of approximately 11,400 fully certified controllers to at least 15,000 fully certified controllers to help offset a spate of retirements.

"It's a very bleak outlook unless the agency does something to hire them," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

FAA officials say there is no shortage.

Speaking to reporters in a conference call, Forrey and other NATCA officials also said changes are needed in how airlines bunch flights during peak hours at busy airports to reduce late departures and takeoffs.

Controllers have been battling the FAA over hiring, pay and operations issues in recent years, maintaining that the agency is not replacing tower personnel fast enough to cover waves of retirements. Many of the controllers that came on after their predecessors were fired in a 1981 strike are now eligible to leave.

Their comments follow statements last week by President Bush and U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters about the need to reduce aviation delays - particularly in the New York-New Jersey region, where the troubles are particularly vexing.

FAA officials say there are enough controllers to safeguard the skies and move traffic efficiently.

In addition to the 11,400 fully certified members, they point to 3,400 trainee controllers who are certified on at least some tower functions.

"We will continue to hire controllers as we need them," said Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman.

"Delays this summer that were experienced in the Northeast were primarily due to thunderstorm activity and not understaffing as the union suggests," Peters said.

But Edward Kragh, president of the local controllers union at Newark Liberty International Airport, said that since 2005 he has lost six experienced controllers who were replaced by six trainees with cumulative experience of less than two years.

Kragh also said some of the delays at Newark Liberty are unavoidable because of the way airlines schedule flights.

For example, he said 22 planes normally can be handled at the hub between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on weekdays, but 33 are scheduled, guaranteeing delays.

FAA and DOT officials said last week they are convening a group of airline industry officials to find solutions to the delay problems in the metropolitan region.

They have proposed reducing the quickly increasing number of flights in and out of John F. Kennedy International Airport, which have hurt on-time performances at Newark Liberty and La Guardia Airport as well.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three airports, believes the idea of re-changing flight schedules during peak hours is "one of a myriad of issues that need to be addressed to relieve the significant delay problems at our airports," according to Marc La Vorgna, an agency spokesman.

Continental Airlines, the largest carrier at Newark Liberty, declined to comment on the controllers' remarks regarding flight schedules, said Dave Messing, a company spokesman.