Air Traffic Controller Attrition

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The General Accounting Office found that most of the current air traffic controllers within the FAA will be retiring within the next 10 years. The FAA has done little to alleviate the controller workforce losses. Meanwhile, many young and experienced military controllers are trying very hard to get the FAA to consider them for these positions.


In a recent report, the General Accounting Office (GAO) presented research on the air traffic controller workforce and the impending retirements that the FAA will be facing in the next few years. Some of the finer points of this report include the following statistics:

  • The number of controllers that will leave soon is higher than FAA estimates.

  • The FAA currently has about 20,000 employees involved in air traffic control.

  • About 15,000 actually sit at the screens and control air traffic, while the others are supervisors, managers, or support staff.

  • The FAA will likely need to hire an increasing number of controllers over the next decade because air traffic will increase and more controllers will retire.

  • Because many controllers were hired after the air traffic controller's strike in 1981, the FAA is facing an aging controller workforce.

  • By 2010, half the controllers are expected to leave, mostly due to retirement. 5,000 are expected to leave by 2006. As many as 11,000 could leave over the next decade.

  • The rate of controller attrition is expected to be 150 percent to 200 percent higher over the next 10 years than it was over the previous five years.

  • Many potential retirees currently hold key positions as supervisors, work in some of FAA's busiest facilities, or both.

  • The FAA's strategy for replacing controllers is to generally hire new controllers only when current experienced controllers leave.

  • The FAA's strategy does not adequately take into account the potential increases in future hiring needs and the time necessary (usually five years) to fully train replacements.

  • About 93 percent of current supervisors are eligible to retire by 2011.

This increases the risk that FAA will not have enough qualified controllers when necessary to meet air traffic demands.

A lack of experienced controllers could have the following adverse consequences:

  • Require FAA to slow down the flow of air traffic, resulting in increased passenger delays;

  • Increase workload on the remaining controllers;

  • Additional work-related stress for the remaining controllers;

  • Prompt the remaining experienced controllers to retire sooner than they otherwise might. (Thirty-three percent of controllers said they would accelerate their decision to retire if forced to work additional overtime.)

Hiring Practices of the FAA

According to a press release from the U.S. House Committee on Transportation, Rep. John Mica of Florida -- the Chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, who requested the GAO report -- was quoted as saying, "[former] Administrator Garvey testified last July that FAA planned to hire 1,000 controllers within a year but as of the end of last April it had only hired 314. FAA needs to do better." Additionally, Rep. Don Young of Alaska -- Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- stated, "While I believe the aviation system will remain safe during this massive turnover, I'm extremely concerned that a shortage of experienced controllers will result in unnecessary airline delays and put further stress on the remaining controllers." In addition, these delays could cause a larger rift between airline passengers, who are already facing large delays for security, and the airline industry.

The FAA has done very little to replace the growing number of air traffic controllers that will be leaving in the next few years. When I joined the United States Marine Corps in 1992 and entered the field of air traffic control, I was told that I could not be hired by the FAA as an air traffic controller after I had reached my 31st birthday. I went to a military school for the fundamentals of air traffic control and I was stationed at the U.S. Marine Corps' busiest and toughest training facility, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. I worked hard to receive qualifications on all of the operating positions within the RADAR facility (there are nine operating positions) and I passed most of my peers in training, breaking records in qualification/training time, usually getting qualified on positions well before 40% of the allotted training time.

In 1997, after serving 5 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, I left to pursue a career with the FAA, operating under the belief that I had to be hired by the FAA before my 31st birthday. To quote from the FAA's Web site: "As established in DPM 338-18, a maximum age of 30 years is established for entry into civilian air traffic control positions in the Federal Aviation Administration whose duties require that the employees be actively engaged in the separation and control of air traffic."

On December 8, 2000, the FAA established a program that is a job opening in the field of air traffic control for retired military air traffic controllers. Suddenly, controllers like myself, who had left the military after serving our contract terms, were left in a very frustrating position. This program was developed to alleviate air traffic controller attrition within the various branches of the military. However, their appointments are limited to five-year renewals and they must retire on the month of their 56th birthday.

In addition, the FAA has instituted the Controller Training Initiative (CTI), a program through which certain approved schools can train students in the fundamentals of air traffic control. The training time is approximately 12 weeks. Comparatively, the Navy/Marine Corps basic air traffic control school lasts approximately 16 weeks. Course information packets for CTI programs read, "Almost 100% of our students are hired by the FAA." Generally, these students receive training in one aspect of air traffic control (for example, en route air traffic services), whereas students at the Navy/Marine Corps basic air traffic control school were taught all phases of air traffic control (terminal, en route, and tower) and were required to pass the FAA's Airman's Written Test (AWT).

Additionally, when I left the military and began to pursue a degree, I was given 30 credit hours, the equivalent of one year of undergraduate study, for my military air traffic experience. Recently, an unofficial source stated that over 20 CTI students washed out (failed to meet minimum qualification requirements) of a high-level facility within one month. I believe that these students should be used to staff lower-level facilities, in order to gain experience, before transferring into higher-level facilities, where a lack of experience can be a contributing factor to the high rate of wash-outs.


Former military air traffic controllers, who left before their 31st birthday, combine the strengths of both programs: experience and education. Having left the military prior to their 31st birthday, these controllers offer a more long-term commitment than retired military controllers. Currently, such controllers staff low-level contract towers, where their years of training and experience are wasted on minimal traffic. This is the perfect solution to a national problem, but former military controllers are not even considered when the FAA fills air traffic control positions.