The Federal Aviation Administration revised a 9-year-old staffing plan and - through attrition - will trim air traffic controller staffing levels nationally by 9 percent.
Officials of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union say the change comes at a critical time. More than half of the nation's controllers are eligible for retirement in the next seven years. Union officials said replacing experienced controllers with inexperienced ones, coupled with increasing sky traffic, will mean a "fraying of the safety net" and more frequent flight delays.
But the FAA says improvements in technology and plans to step up hiring of new controllers will ease the transition. They also note that air traffic is still less than pre-Sept. 11 levels.
The 1998 figures were reached after months of study by a group consisting of FAA and union officials. NATCA President Pat Forrey of Avon Lake said the union had no input into these new levels.
"It's not staffing based on what you need, but what they can budget," Forrey said.
The FAA says the plan is not budget-driven. Spokeswoman Diane Spitalieri said the plan looked at air traffic patterns at facilities around the country and projected their needs. Also, employment levels would be evaluated annually.
It was crafted by experts throughout the air traffic community, including the National Academy of Science and FAA facility managers, she said.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will examine the new staffing plans today in hearings that review the FAA's budget and biannual reauthorization, committee spokesman Jim Berard said.
FAA Great Lakes Region spokesman Tony Molinaro said air traffic diminished after Sept. 11, 2001. For example, 14,904 controllers handled 67.7 million flights in 2000. In 2006, 2 percent fewer controllers handled about 9 percent fewer flights.
However, Molinaro said air traffic is rising steadily and will continue to rise.
Forrey countered that more experienced controllers are needed, not fewer.
"Technological improvements help, but they don't replace people," he said. "You still need people in front of the monitors. I'm concerned because controllers are already working 10-hour days and six-day weeks in some facilities. Fewer experienced controllers mean more fatigue, less safety redundancy and more mistakes, which could mean air disasters. The FAA is playing a dangerous game."
Spitalieri agreed that some facilities are below the staffing numbers they would like and said the number of controllers would be increased.
"We do have overtime at some facilities, but it is strictly voluntary," she said.
The retirement issue is one that will not go away. In October, 14,618 controllers were working, with 1,200 eligible to retire by the end of 2007. The FAA plans to hire 1,300 in 2007 to replace them.
NATCA officials point out that it takes four years, or even five years, from the time an employee walks in the door before he's fully trained
Spitalieri said the FAA has upped its commitment to training new controllers and said they would be enough to replace the retiring controllers. The FAA claims advances in technology have reduced training time to about two years at an airport terminal and three years at a center, which NATCA denies.
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