"There are no shortcuts to training," said Pat Forrey, vice president of the Great Lakes Region of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Too many lives are at stake if a controller makes an error."
FAA spokesmen reject the notion that people who are eligible to retire will leave. Of the 3,769 eligible to retire in 2007, the FAA believes only 1,097 will.
"We did a study in the early 2000s that showed that most of the [eligible] controllers waited an average of five years before retiring," FAA's Basye said. "When you look at the money they make, why would they retire? I hate to use the words 'scare tactics,' but that is what the union is doing."
Doug Church, National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman, said fewer controllers retired around 2000 because they had signed a good contract in 1998. Since retirement pay is based on the highest three years of salary, it was natural that they would stay on the job.
"Look, we have no way of knowing how many people will retire," said Church. "But we do know how many could. Is it smart for the FAA to just sit around and hope that those who can retire will not? Isn't it smarter to prepare for the retirements?"
The FAA and the union are in contract talks now. The contract being negotiated offers a lower pay scale to new controllers - up to 30 percent less - depending on location.
The FAA says the proposal is fair and an improvement. NATCA says that it is not and that its enactment will encourage early retirement.
The two sides have reached an impasse.
Under federal regulations, the FAA's last offer goes into effect until 2010 unless Congress steps in by June 5 and orders the agency to resume negotiations.
Both the FAA and the union agree that a large number of controllers will disappear over the next six years.
The Oberlin Center is the second-busiest in the world; it controls about 3 million aircraft a year flying over portions of Ohio, Michigan, New York, Canada, West Virginia, Indiana and Maryland.
"There is almost no one being trained to replace them," said Forrey. "We have 50 people that we expect to retire at the end of the year. If they do, this could have a dramatic effect on air traffic control and open the door to an air disaster."
FAA officials insist that replacement of the aging controller work force is not a concern. A 2004 plan called for the hiring of 1,200 controllers a year through 2014. The actual hirings have fallen short.
Most controllers start the training process with three months at the FAA's Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. That is followed by up to five years of training at an air traffic control facility.
Basye said the number of academy graduates was 123 in the fiscal year ending 2004; 305 in 2005; and 511 so far for the fiscal year that ends in October.
He said that about 80 percent of those the FAA hires attend initial training at the FAA academy. The rest have had experience in military aircraft control or private industry.
"The real training doesn't begin until after they are assigned to a center [or an airport tower] where they are taught by controllers," said Forrey. "It's on-the-job training, as we call it, training by fire."
"This is a very serious job with no room for error - none," he added.
"It's difficult and high-stress. If we make a mistake, people die. We can't make mistakes."