Air traffic controller crisis looms

The Federal Aviation Administration likely will need to hire thousands of air traffic controllers in the next decade, a General Accounting Office review found.

The FAA will have to recruit a well-qualified workforce to offset the anticipated attrition of experienced controllers and to address increased traffic demands, a June 14 GAO report concluded.

Many of the controllers the agency hired more than two decades ago to replace thousands fired following a strike in 1981 are or soon will be eligible for retirement. The list of potential departees includes frontline supervisors and controllers at some of the nation's busiest air traffic control facilities.

Under its current hiring process, the FAA risks facing a skills gap in the future, the reports says.

The GAO recommended that Transportation Department Secretary Norman Mineta direct the FAA to develop a comprehensive workforce plan that includes a workable, long-term strategy for staffing.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Union backed the findings. "This report says it all," NATCA preisdent John Carr said in a June 17 news release. "We're going to lose one in every three controllers we have in the next five years, and the Federal Aviation Administration's plans are inadequate for making up for that shortfall."

The FAA currently employs more than 20,000 controllers, who play a key role in managing the National Airspace System (NAS) and providing information to pilots in the air and on the ground. They rely on a variety of computer systems to do their job.

"The FAA has an aggressive plan to ensure sufficient air traffic controllers are available to staff the entire air traffic control system and serve the flying public safely and efficiently," said Fraser Jones, a spokesman for the FAA. "This didn't come as a surprise to us."

The results of a GAO survey indicate that about 5,000 controllers could leave in the next five years - more than twice the number who have left in the past five. And the FAA estimates that about 7,000 controller specialists will leave by 2010, the same year the agency expects to complete its operational evolution plan, a series of steps aimed at boosting the capacity of the NAS, according to the report.

"In light of the GAO report, I think it's prudent to sit down and negotiate staffing numbers immediately," Carr said.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Aviation Subcommittee and Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.), ranking member, requested the review.

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