O'Hare air traffic controllers say the federal government is moving too slowly to hire radar readers and plane directors to handle the jump in flights expected from the airport's massive expansion.
The Federal Aviation Administration's Chicago division recently said it plans to hire 40 more air traffic controllers for the region by 2013 to handle 200,000 more yearly flights, a change in flight patterns and two new control towers related to the expansion.
Yet, Craig Burzych, president of the O'Hare division of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said they should have started hiring earlier this year. "They need to get them here now," he said, stopping short of saying the delay jeopardizes safety.
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said Thursday the agency is confident it is on schedule.
The agency has yet to make a final determination on how many controllers to hire and when to start. The 40 planned hires is a preliminary figure that could be changed by top FAA officials.
Hiring needed to start earlier this year because training controllers to handle various duties at O'Hare can take more than two years. A controller generally takes courses on a position such as ground control for two weeks and then works in the spot for six months or so before becoming certified and moving on to another post, like arrivals.
The extra air traffic controllers will first be needed around the end of 2007, just before a new northern runway comes online with its own control tower.
"If they don't have people to man (the new tower), we will have to move people from here," Burzych said. "You just can't break open a six-pack of controllers and throw them in a tower."
Molinaro said the agency will look to hire controllers experienced at other busy airports to try and minimize training time.
"It is not like these are going to be people off the streets," he said.
The overall $7.5 billion expansion plan includes another new southern runway with its own tower, the extension of several runways and a new western concourse. The project, which started this fall, is expected to reduce delays while adding 200,000 flights a year to the 1 million or so flights O'Hare currently handles. Under the FAA's preliminary plan, O'Hare and a facility in Elgin would each get 16 new air traffic controllers while a Milwaukee facility would get six and a station in South Bend, Ind., would gain two.
The air traffic controllers union has long criticized the FAA, claiming it has stalled on hiring while much of the work force prepares to retire in the coming years. Out of more than 15,000 air controllers nationwide, about 11,000 will be eligible to retire between now and 2014, Molinaro said. The FAA is in the early stages of hiring 12,500 new controllers to compensate by 2014, he said.
At the O'Hare tower, more than half of the current 61 traffic controllers will be eligible to retire by 2007, Burzych said.
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