...As Controller Retirements Loom

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Mead also raised concerns about the safety of the nation's air traffic control system. Although runway incursions decreased by 4 percent in fiscal year 2003, operational errors -- when controllers allow planes to come too close together in the air -- increased 12 percent, to 1,186, with an average of three operational errors each day and one high-risk error every week. In addition, about 7,000 air traffic controllers are expected to become eligible for retirement in the next nine years. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, testifying before the same Senate panel last week, said a new rule is in the works that would allow controllers to apply for a waiver to continue working beyond the current mandatory retirement age of 56. She also said the FAA is working to make its training programs more efficient in order to reduce the time it takes to train new controllers. Mead said that it may not be necessary to replace all of the retirees on a one-for-one basis, depending on such factors as future air traffic levels and new technologies. However, he said it is clear that as a result of the anticipated increases in attrition, the FAA will have to begin hiring and training controllers at levels it has not experienced since the early 1980s.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) already has raised alarms about the coming trend and its concerns over the FAA's lack of action to deal with it. "We need to start training 1,000 new controllers each year to meet demand, but there is not a plan in place or funding to make this happen," NATCA President John Carr said in a news release last week. "The FAA and Congress must work with us to ensure that there is a staffing plan in place to ensure safety is preserved." Mead also told the Senate panel the FAA must adapt its safety oversight to deal with the increased outsourcing of maintenance work by the airlines. While major air carriers outsourced 37 percent of their aircraft maintenance in 1996, the amount spent on outsourced maintenance increased to 47 percent of maintenance costs in 2002.