A July 22 article on projected retirements by air traffic controllers gave an incorrect figure for membership in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The association represents about 20,000 air traffic workers, including 15,000 controllers. (Published 7/23/04) ----- A July 22 article on air traffic controllers' retirements misidentified the manager of the air traffic tower at Reagan National Airport. His name is Don Simons, not Doug Simons. (Published 7/27/04)
Federal officials said yesterday that they are preparing to deal with a nationwide wave of retirements by air traffic controllers over the next decade and that passenger safety will not be jeopardized.
Regional officials with the Federal Aviation Administration are gauging how a potential exodus of nearly half the nation's air traffic controllers will affect individual airports, including Reagan National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International, said Doug Simons, manager at National's control tower.
"Neither the FAA nor its controllers will permit the system to operate in ways that are unsafe or with staffing that is inadequate to the task," Simons told reporters yesterday. "We will be there, with the numbers of people we need, everywhere, at all times."
The FAA estimates that nearly half of the nation's 15,000 air traffic controllers will be eligible for retirement before 2013. Many of the potential retirees were hired in 1982 after President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization the year before.
In the Washington region, nearly 700 air traffic controllers direct more than 3,000 daily flights from six towers and radar centers. Ten percent of those controllers will be eligible to retire in 2006, said FAA spokesman Greg Martin.
Paul Rinaldi, alternate vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's eastern region, said at least one-third of the controllers at Dulles and BWI will be eligible to retire or will reach the mandatory retirement age of 56 by 2008.
The association has warned in recent weeks that the retirements, if not headed off by aggressive recruiting and increased funding, could cause a controller shortage that would result in chronic flight delays, overstressed controllers and safety risks.
"If we don't have the adequate number of certified controllers to work this system, basically we're not going to be able . . . to safely meet the needs of the traveler," Rinaldi said.
The association, which represents 30,000 controllers nationwide, has called on Congress to appropriate an additional $14 million for the FAA to hire controllers. The current budget is $6.2 billion. To stave off a crisis, at least 1,000 controllers must be hired annually for the next three to five years, Rinaldi said. The FAA hired 762 controllers in 2003.
The retirements will come at a time when air traffic is expected to increase dramatically because of expanded flight schedules, new budget airlines, and growth in the private and charter plane industry.
A shortage could hit Dulles especially hard. The flight schedule there is expanding rapidly, partly because of the arrival of Independence Air, a discount airline that has been based there since June, Rinaldi said.
The FAA says it is uncertain how many new controllers will be needed and which of the nation's 300 air traffic facilities will need them, Simons said. He said the agency is studying the situation at each of the facilities and will deliver a report to Congress in December.
In the meantime, the agency said, it is taking steps to stem a potential shortage. It has proposed raising the controller retirement age and is focusing on advancements in technology to help reduce the dependence on air traffic controllers.
It is also streamlining controller training, an extensive process that can take up to five years, officials said.
"The task at hand is not simply to hire a number of new controllers, but the right number," Simons said.
Union representatives say there is no time to wait. Hiring must start now so that enough veteran controllers are still in towers to train recruits, said John Carr, national president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association.
"When it comes to having eyes on the skies, we need help and we need help now," Carr said.