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.

Because retirements are individual decisions, Martin said, a supervisor "can't walk up to an employee and ask, 'When are you retiring?' " The FAA, Gibson added, does not want employees to think they face age discrimination or coercion.

Still, Gibson said, most tower supervisors "have a pretty good idea of people who will retire," and that will help shape staffing decisions. FAA officials also think they can assemble reliable projections because controllers face mandatory retirement at 56, she said.

The retirement estimates have become an issue in the contract negotiations between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The talks ended in deadlock, and the dispute has been turned over to Congress for resolution.

The union, meanwhile, has launched a national advertising campaign that claims the FAA's contract proposal would nudge controllers into retirement and pay less to their replacements.

FAA officials dispute those contentions, although the agency proposal would reduce pay scales for the next generation of controllers by 30 percent.

Current controllers earn an average of about $113,000 in base pay and will not take a cut under the FAA proposal, Gibson said. In retirement, controllers would get pensions of about $50,000 if they qualify under the old Civil Service Retirement System and probably less if they were hired under the Federal Employees Retirement System adopted in the late 1980s, she said.

At noon Wednesday, Robert M. Tobias, director of public sector executive education at American University, will be the guest on Federal Diary Live on washingtonpost.com and take questions from federal employees. Stephen Barr may be reached at barrs@washpost.com.

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