Air traffic controllers head to the beach

Federal Aviation Administration officials should begin preparing now because an exodus of retiring air traffic controllers could leave airports severely understaffed in a few years, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

The report predicted that half of all controllers — about 7,000 people — will retire during the next decade, and the nation's busiest airports would suffer the most. According to GAO officials, this prediction is especially worrisome because air travel has recovered since the industry's tailspin following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. According to government officials, the upcoming summer travel months could surpass previous summers.

"This problem is not sudden or unexpected," Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee last month. "It jeopardizes the future of the system and America's leadership role in world aviation."

Among the agency's key hurdles, GAO officials found that the Transportation Security Administration's efforts to modernize traffic control systems have proven ineffective, despite consuming personnel resources. The report cited efforts to improve the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System that instead yielded a customized system that is costlier and takes longer to implement.

"Despite the importance of controller involvement in the development, deployment and refinement of new air traffic control systems, such activities can be very time-consuming, often take controllers off-line and place additional pressure on an already constrained workforce," the GAO report states.

The report noted that FAA officials do not have a strategy to address their hiring challenges, despite a report two years earlier that recommended the agency create a comprehensive plan. The FAA's challenges include the changing dynamics of the airline industry and air space regulations, limitations on training capacities and the length of time it takes to train new controllers. The Transportation Department's recent inspector general report also warned of dire air traffic control personnel shortages.

Attrition has an adverse impact on the remaining employees who experience heavier workloads and increased stress. It could create a cycle of retirements and staff shortages. GAO officials found that 33 percent of controllers said they would seek early retirement if faced with additional mandatory overtime.

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