On Thursday, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) said statistics published in the FAA’s Administrators Fact Book shows that ATC staffing levels have dropped “to a new low” after a third straight year of decline. This year’s decline is defined by the loss of 21 people and represents a slight negative shift in staffing levels, or a change from 14,227 controllers in 2005 to 14,206 in 2006. That said, in 2003 (the high water mark for staffing) the controller population reached 15,386 — a full 7.7% more controllers than we have today. [more] Last year, 734 controllers retired, eclipsing the FAAs projection to Congress by 57 percent, according to NATCA. Rather than staffing to traffic as the FAA states publicly is its new mission, the agency appears to be following a new policy: staffing to budget, NATCA president Patrick Forrey stated. “Our greatest challenge today, besides the distraction of the imposed work rules, is maintaining the margin of safety knowing the level of redundancy has been whittled away to its bare minimum.” The FAA did not return repeated calls seeking comment, but the agency’s latest Flight Plan performance report claims it is on target for controller hiring and overall staffing.