Retirements Spark Air Traffic Controller Shortage

Air traffic controllers are retiring a lot faster than expected. i i

Air traffic controllers are retiring a lot faster than expected, but the FAA says safety has not suffered. Tim Boyle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Air traffic controllers are retiring a lot faster than expected.

Air traffic controllers are retiring a lot faster than expected, but the FAA says safety has not suffered.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

In the summer of 1981, 12,000 air traffic controllers went on strike, and President Ronald Reagan made a momentous decision: He fired them.

The thousands of replacement air-traffic controllers the Federal Aviation Commission hired back then are now eligible to retire — all at once. And they're leaving a lot faster than the FAA thought they would.

"I feel like the rats jumping off the Titanic. That's exactly what it feels like," said air traffic controller Chris Rzeszuto, who is retiring in January. "It's terrible."

Last year, the FAA unilaterally imposed a new labor contract on controllers. It slashed pay for new hires, froze pay for most old-timers and clamped down on everything from what they wear to where they can get coffee.

Should the Public Worry?

The FAA's Jim Washington says the public should not be concerned.

He said it's true that nearly 30 percent more controllers retired in the past year than the agency had predicted.

"And so as a result of the increased attrition out of the controller work force, we continue to adjust our hiring targets on a monthly basis," Washington said. "There's no shortage of people that are interested in being hired as air traffic controllers."

Still, there have been challenges in some places, Washington said.

"We do have facilities which are not as healthily staffed as we would like them to be," Washington said.

He insists that safety hasn't suffered.

"We have just completed the safest period in aviation history in the United States," Washington said.

'Luck of the Draw'

That's true. Fatal accident rates in both commercial and private aviation are at record lows. Still, not everyone's so sanguine.

"It could very well be the luck of the draw that you haven't had an accident," said John Goglia, an aviation analyst and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Goglia said new recruits should ideally start out in towers in small cities and work their way up to the more hectic ones.

"But that's not the case. We have many people coming into the New York region and into Chicago and Los Angeles," Goglia said. "These are very busy places."

Training new recruits takes years. Experienced air traffic controllers are already stretched thin, Goglia said, and mentoring the newcomers just adds to the burden.

Operational Errors Down

This echoes what the union has been saying.

"We got controllers that are fatigued. We got them working longer times on position, longer workdays, longer work weeks, less breaks in between, and operational errors are on the rise," said Patrick Foray, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "We haven't had any major accidents. Well, all the signs are leading up to the fact that we're going to."

The FAA hotly disputes this.

It concedes that operational errors — instances where planes get too close together — were up last month. There were four serious mistakes in just the past couple of weeks. But overall, the FAA says, operational errors are down.

FAA officials say that in any case, the operational errors have had nothing to do with staffing or fatigue.

Be that as it may, with the looming retirements, the situation could get worse before it gets better.

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