Air traffic controllers warned Thursday that there may not be enough of them at O'Hare International Airport to handle a new runway late next year, threatening the project's promised flight delay reductions.
Federal Aviation Administration officials disagree, saying they are on track to hire enough controllers and that the first phase of the $8 billion airport expansion will lead to fewer flight delays.
"That plan is moving forward," said FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro.
Calling it a "huge staffing crisis," the controllers union claims an Elgin radar facility governing flights in and out of O'Hare will need about 25 new controllers by the fall of 2008 when the new north runway is set to open.
The need is due in part to an anticipated increase in workload, but also because of the pending retirement of as many as 33 veteran controllers at that facility.
"This has been an issue on an ongoing basis," said David Stock, union chief for the Elgin controllers.
"But it is still fixable right now. If we wait any longer it is going past the point of being fixable."
New hires can take as long as two years to train, and transfers from other facilities also need months of training at their new station.
Currently, about 91 controllers run the Elgin station, though seven of them are in training, Stock said.
Molinaro said the FAA is on top of the situation and has had a plan in place to hire enough controllers for the last two years.
Stock said he doubts the FAA can meet its goals, especially because controllers from other facilities have not volunteered to transfer to Elgin in large enough numbers.
"I hope their plan does work," he said. "But I just don't see it."
Chicago officials in charge of O'Hare expansion declined to comment on the issue, saying it was an FAA matter.