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Thursday, January 18, 2007

FAA Sees Drop In Number of Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllerstaffing levels have dropped for the third straight year, to a new low of 14,206, according to the most recent Federal Aviation Administration "Administrator's Fact Book."

Despite the FAA's public claims that it hired more controllers than it lost to retirement and other factors over the past year, the agency's own fact book reports that the overall total number of controllers working inits 300-plus facilities dropped from 14,227 at the end of fiscal year 2005 to 14,206 in fiscal year 2006, according to the air traffic controllers' union.

The figures are listed as being current asof Oct. 31, 2006, taking into account hiring and attrition statistics a full month into the current fiscal year.

Controller staffing totals reached as high as 15,386 as recently as September 2003. But a year later, in October 2004, the FAA reported that total had fallen to 14,736 as the long-expected controller retirement wave began to increase in size. The total fell again, to 14,227, a year later, the FAA reported.

"This is the most definitive proof yet, from the FAA's own reported figures, that the agency simply cannot get ahead of the retirement wave, no matter how many people they say they are hiring and trying to rush into thesystem," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey says. "The agency is now rapidly losing its most veteran,experienced controllers -- the people who it was counting on to train its new generation of controllers -- at a far higher rate than it expected and is continuing to force more veterans to retire early with its demoralizing, distracting and authoritarian imposed work rules."

Veteran controllers are currently retiring at a rate of more than three per day since the start of the current fiscal year: Oct. 1, 2006. This follows a 2006 fiscal year in which 734 controllers retired, eclipsing the FAA's projection to Congress by 57 percent. At the current pace, the number of fiscal year 2007 retirements will clear the FAA's projection of 643 by Memorial Day at the latest; a full four months before the end of the fiscal year. Overall, the FAA has missed its retirement projections for three straight fiscal years, by an increasing margin each year, the union says.

Controllers can retire before the mandatory age of 56 if they have metone of two criteria: Reach age 50 and have 20 years of service; or have 25 years of service at any age.

"Rather than 'staffing to traffic' as the FAA states publicly is its new mission, the agency appears to be following a new policy; 'staffing tobudget,'" Forrey says. "And the scary part is no amount of new hires the agency has made over the past two years or will make over the next 2-4 years is going to fix the current staffing problem. That's because it takes 2-4 years to train a new controller before that professional is fully certified.

"That gap, from the day a veteran controller retires to the day their replacement reaches full certification level, is where we have the most reason to worry about the agency's continued ability to maintain the margin of safety in the system by ensuring there is redundancy," he adds. "Our greatest challenge today, besides the distraction of the imposed work rules, ismaintaining the margin of safety knowing the level of redundancy has been whittled away to its bare minimum. We need more eyes watching the skies."

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