FAA Readies Hiring Plan To Fill Controllers' Ranks

By Stephen Barr
Monday, April 24, 2006

Twenty-five years ago, air traffic controllers went on strike. When they did not meet a White House deadline to return to work, President Ronald Reagan fired them.

The mass firing set off a hiring binge at the Federal Aviation Administration. From 1982 through 1991, the agency hired an average of 2,655 controllers per year.

Now, it's time to replace controllers again -- this time because of retirements.

The FAA estimates about 12,500 new controllers will have to be hired and trained through fiscal 2014. The FAA employs about 15,000 controllers. It's one of the agency's biggest challenges, requiring careful planning and substantial spending.

The FAA's projected surge in controller retirements is part of a larger exodus across government, as baby boomers qualify for their full pension benefits. Linda M. Springer , director of the Office of Personnel Management, has urged agencies to step up workforce planning because OPM data suggest retirements will increase from 2008 through 2010.

Ventris Gibson , the FAA's top human resources officer, said that her agency's planning effort is in good shape and that the coming retirement wave will not impair air traffic operations.

This year, for example, the FAA projects that 1,699 controllers will become eligible to retire by Sept. 30. To date, 465 have retired, and the FAA has hired 573 new controllers, Gibson said.

The FAA's goal is to hire at a steady rate over this decade, bringing in slightly more controllers than needed in order to allow for ample training time and to offset those who cannot make it through controller school. (Typically, the FAA anticipates a 5 percent training failure rate.)

Officials acknowledge that the hiring plan is subject to change, since the FAA will adjust staffing requirements annually to reflect changes in commercial jetliner volume and efficiencies gained through new technology.

But Todd J. Zinser , acting inspector general at the Transportation Department, has raised concerns that the FAA's plan does not drill down by location -- to towers and centers. "Without this information FAA cannot have confidence in the number of controllers it needs," he wrote last month in testimony prepared for the Senate subcommittee on aviation.

"That level of detail is critical because there are over 300 FAA-operated air traffic control facilities -- many with significant differences in the levels of air traffic they manage and the complexity of operations they handle," Zinser said.

FAA spokesman Greg Martin said officials will publish an updated air traffic staffing plan in the next two months, but he said a tower-by-tower analysis could take as long as 14 months to complete.

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